Stress and constipation
The missing link

Myth : there is no proven link between stress and constipation

Fact : stress has a direct impact on our gut. It interferes with secretion of digestive enzymes and can slow down gut motility.

In other words, stress and constipation, in our modern world, are definitely intertwined.

What to do about it ?

Can we run away from stress nowadays ? No we can’t, nor should we try to. But we can cope with stress in a much better way.

In this article, I will first expose the link between stress and constipation. In a second step, as usual, I will offer you some practical solutions.

Stress and constipation : the facts

There used to be a time when doctors believed stress was only a psychological imbalance. 10 years ago, I asked my family doctor whether he thought stress could increase the risk of cardiovascular accidents. His answer was « people worry too much about stress, it’s all in their head ».

Not anymore. There is a slew of research papers(1)(2)(3) exposing the chemical and nervous cascade provoked by stress, or the fact that stress exacerbates gut motility issues.

To take an extreme and unfortunate example, if you look at kids undergoing post-traumatic stress disorder during a war situation, the most prevalent physiological expression of the stress is constipation or diarrhea(4).

Here is a summary of what is going on when that pesky boss is behind our back :

  • Our adrenal glands secrete adrenalin and cortisol, the two “stress hormones”
  • Our arterial system, through a series of vasodilation in certain areas, and vasoconstriction in others, will reroute blood to the organs that are the most needed to save our life : the heart, the muscles, the brain, the lungs.
  • Some organ systems will be robbed of their blood : the digestive system in particular (along with the sexual organs, and the immune system).

The net result :

  1. Less secretion of gastric acids, of pancreatic enzymes, and of bile, our natural laxative.
  2. Less smooth muscle tones in the gut, a less powerful peristaltic movement, and therefore stagnation, leading to constipation.

Keeping a journal

How do you know that for your specific case, stress causes or aggravates constipation ?

Through keeping a journal. Here is what you do.

For a duration of two months, every day, you write on a piece of paper your transit situation of the day. Write down the frequency and severity of crisis. Also write down your stress level of the day, and why there is stress or absence of stress.

After two months, analyze your journal. If your gut is reactive to stress, you should be able to see correlations between major stress events and your transit.

For some of us, no journal needed. We know for a fact, or we have observed many times, that stressful times means more constipation.

If you have concluded that stress is indeed a trigger for you, read on.


Stress and constipation : the remedies

We have seen multiple constipation remedies on this website. In this article, we are not acting on transit directly, but indirectly through stress lowering herbs.

There are two categories of herbs and supplements that can help.

  1. The first category provides punctual help in dealing with acute stress, at home or at work.
  2. The second category calms down the adrenal glands, by slowly but surely reducing the secretion of adrenalin and cortisol.

Here is what you can do for a duration of 6 weeks :

  • Every morning, prepare a herbal tea made of dried skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora), one ounce of the plant for a quart of water. Put the dried skullcap in a 1.5 quart jar. Pour one quart of boiling water and close the jar tightly. Let infuse for 20 minutes. Filter using a sieve and drink by the cup during the day.
  • Every morning, put 80 drops of a tincture of Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus) in a bit of cold water and drink.

Both plans are gentle tonics, with no known toxicity. They have well known anti-stress properties. Skullcap acts fairly fast, whereas Siberian ginseng needs 3 to 4 weeks to fully express itself. Take both, every day, for the recommended duration.

Buy your plant from a reputable place. I recommend Mountain Rose, which sells outstanding herbs and herbal products.


Next steps

After 6 weeks, you will be able to see whether this herbal protocol has helped you lower your stress, and therefore improve your stress-related constipation. 

During this duration, keep-up with the journal. It will allow you to compare the before and after and make conclusions based on facts, and not vague feelings.

If you determine that stress is a major component of your constipation, do this herbal protocol 3 to 4 times a year.

You should also investigate other stress-lowering techniques such as relaxation, visualization, meditation, physical activities, whatever works for you.

I hope I have helped you come up with a specific plan to help you deal with your chronic or acute constipation.


References

(1) Buckley MM, O'Mahony SM, O'Malley D. Convergence of neuro-endocrine-immune pathways in the pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome. World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Jul 21;20(27):8846-8858.

(2) Yarandi SS, Srinivasan S. Diabetic gastrointestinal motility disorders and the role of enteric nervous system: current status and future directions. Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2014 May;26(5):611-24.

(3) Khokhar N, Niazi AK. A long-term profile of patients with irritable bowel syndrome. J Coll Physicians Surg Pak. 2013 Jun;23(6):388-91.

(4) Kaufman-Shriqui V, Werbeloff N, Faroy M, Meiri G, Shahar DR, Fraser D, Novack Y, Bilenko N, Vardi H, Elhadad N, Pietrzak RH, Harpaz-Rotem I. Posttraumatic stress disorder among preschoolers exposed to ongoing missile attacks in the Gaza war. Depress Anxiety. 2013 May;30(5):425-31.


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