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Can stress cause constipation?

5 years ago

Take a moment to think of something that truly excites you. It may be a party that you are excited about attending on the weekend, a first date coming up or a new episode of your favourite television series that is airing tonight.  Now, how do you feel? Light hearted? A little dizzy? Does your heart start to race a little? What about when think about having to do a speech at a friends wedding or some public speaking. Do you get butterflies in your stomach or a feeling of dread deep inside?

I use this simple exercise to help illustrate just how strong the mind/body connection is, and how what you feel mentally and emotionally can have a very strong physical effect on your body. The effect of stress on bowel motions, specifically constipation is a very good example of this connection in action.

Does stress equal less?

By less I mean bowel motions!! When it comes to the effect of stress on the digestive system, it really depends on the individual and what their digestive ‘Achilles heel’ (or area of weakness) may be. For example, if you are prone to bouts of constipation every now and then, you will probably most likely experience increased constipation when you are under increased stress. On the other hand, if you are more prone to loose bowel motions, you will most likely experience diarrhoea when feeling stressed. Both acute and chronic ongoing stress places increased demands on the body so that any areas of weakness become magnified.

Making the connections

The part of the nervous system which controls digestion is known as the enteric nervous system. Now this may sound a little scientific but stay with me…..this enteric nervous system has strong connections to the central nervous system (which is like the central hub of the body) and they are continually talking to one another. The central nervous system has not changed much from our ancestors, when our threats or sources of stress came in the form of big scary animals that we were trying to run away from. So, when you start to experience modern day stress ( possibly in the form of scary deadlines, big buildings and busy cities), the central nervous system often reacts by thinking that we might need to run away from something very VERY soon. So what part of the body does the central nervous decide to shut down so that other parts of the body can get more blood flow? You guessed it, the digestive system! This area is deemed less important than legs (your bowels are not much good at helping you run fast are they?) so all the blood is shunted away from the digestive system and into other areas of the body. This means that the digestive system now lacks good blood flow or nutrients to perform effectively and constipation can occur. If the stress is chronic or ongoing (as it often is), then bowel irregularity can become a long term issue.

Practice, perceive and be patient

So what can you do to relieve stress related constipation? Well the obvious answer may be to reduce stress, but in the modern world it is incredibly difficult to simply avoid it. It is a part of our every day lives. Instead, one of the best ways to reduce stress (and relieve associated conditions such as constipation) is to change the way you perceive and interpret these life stresses! Now this is not an easy undertaking and can take quite a lot of practice. In stressful situations, often our first instinct is to react (often badly or irrationally) and it can take a while for us to get used to taking a moment, perceiving the situation and being more mindful of our response. You may find it useful especially in the beginning to speak with a psychologist or counsellor about specific techniques which you can use to improve and mediate the way you perceive and react to stress. It takes practice but just like any muscle, the more time your mind spends practicing being more mindful and less reactive, the easier it will become.

Relax regularly to become more regular

Many people often find that they need to actually take themselves out of their stressful surroundings to really relax and reduce the effects that stress has on the body.  Regular weekend getaways, holiday retreats and time spent with loved ones are wonderful ways of improving our reactions to stress. You will often find that when you get back from a relaxing holiday, your reactions to stress are not as strong and you are better able to deal with sources of life stress. If getting away regularly is not an option for you, practicing daily meditation, attending yoga and Pilates classes and listening to some relaxing music may be useful too. The important thing is to find something that fits in with your lifestyle.

In my naturopathic practice I am reminded on a daily basis of the strong link between the mind and the body and how stress can have a profound effect on the digestive system and overall wellbeing. I think it is clear that there is a link between stress and constipation and if this is an area of concern for you, adopting stress reduction techniques, and changing the way you perceive life stresses may have a positive effect on improving bowel regularity, whilst having a positive effect on your wellness and vitality.

So what are you techniques to reduce stress? Do they have a positive effect on regulating your digestive system? I would love to hear your thoughts below.

Image courtesy of Dynamite Imagery


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