The link between constipation and stress

The link between constipation and stress

A certain amount of stress is unavoidable. We all face it at some point in our lives. However, it’s important to know how it can impact digestion, trigger conditions, and in the long-term, compromise gut health.
Caitlin Hall
by Ceri Ball
BSc qualified Nutritionist (BANT) specialising in Women’s health, Gastrointestinal Health, Mood, Energy Support and Weight Management.

What is constipation?

Constipation can be caused by several factors including a lack of exercise, a diet high in processed foods, insufficient fibre, and low water intake. Aside from these well-known causes, did you know that psychological stress has also been shown to impair digestive function? Stress-related constipation, also called psychogenic constipation, maybe an unfamiliar term, but it’s certainly a real thing.  

So, let's unpack this. Your digestive system and brain have an incredible connection and are constantly in communication with each other, referred to as the gut-brain axis. 


What is the gut-brain axis?

The gut-brain connection links your central nervous system (CNS), including your brain, with the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) in your gut, also referred to as the second brain.  The ENS plays an important role, not only in your digestive health but also in your mental wellbeing. 

Now let’s look at the nervous system. The nervous system is made up of 2 divisions – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response - it is primitive and automatic. In the days when humans had to protect themselves against wild animals, this emergency system was very important (for example, escaping from predators). Even though the threats we face today are very different, this innate system still responds in the same way when we experience stress. Long-term stress causes the body to produce a cocktail of hormones including, epinephrine, corticotropin-releasing-factor (CRF) cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones equip our bodies to react to stressful situations, which results in the body diverting blood flow away from the digestive system, and instead floods the vital organs including the brain, heart, and lungs. However, if our stress response is continuously triggered, our body remains in an alert and stressful state which may manifest into conditions like psychogenic constipation. 

The parasympathetic nervous system is known as the ‘rest and digest’ division, and is the body’s preferred state.  Below are some top line dietary and lifestyle tips to add to your wellbeing toolkit and up-regulate this part of the nervous system. 


Nutrition Medicine

🥬 Fibre: The recommended daily intake is 30g per day. Include plenty of fibre-rich foods including oats, wheat bran, flaxseed, chia seeds, quinoa, beans and pulses. 

💦 Hydration: Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day to help keep stool soft and easy to pass.

Lifestyle Medicine

🌊 Mindfulness: Meditation and diaphragmatic breathing exercises have shown to reduce stress hormones, by activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

🧘‍♀️ Movement:  Gentle, moderate, or high intensity exercise is a personal choice, we can feel amazing, even after a 10–15-minute workout.  Just try to stay active and schedule in regular exercise to keep your mind and body happy. 


  • PMID: 19696192
  • PMID: 34232176
  • PMID: 31954201
  • PMID: 30292888