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You know that stress can disrupt your sleep, cause your muscles to feel tense, and even make your heart race — but you may be surprised to learn that it can also contribute to constipation. Yes, feeling backed up could be an uncomfortable side effect of your seemingly endless to-do list.

“Constipation is having bowel movements less frequently than once every three days, or having difficulty or discomfort in defecating hard stools,” explains David Clarke, MD, president of the Psychophysiologic Disorders Association and clinical assistant professor of gastroenterology emeritus at Oregon Health & Science University. When you’re constipated, stools are typically dry and lumpy, and it could be pretty painful to pass them, and even more common to feel like they haven’t passed at all.

Although gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause chronic constipation, there’s a good chance that high-stress, anxiety-filled situations may be contributing to you feeling backed up. Keep reading to learn why stress-induced constipation occurs, and what you can do to treat it.

Can Stress Cause Constipation?

Stress can seriously take a toll on your gut health, leading to issues like constipation. “When stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which tells us to fight or flee, the bowel is slowed down since you don’t want your bowels moving when the body’s resources are needed elsewhere to cope with a stressful situation,” Dr. Clarke says.

Although stress can directly signal your nervous system to slow your bowels, there are other ways constipation may be linked to stress. For example, you might find that you reach for sugary, processed foods instead of fiber-rich grains, fruits, and vegetables when you’re feeling stressed, or that you struggle to squeeze in a workout because of your hectic schedule. Research shows that even moderate exercise, like cycling or jogging, can help the bowels to move more efficiently.

“The faster the stool passes, the more water it retains, which makes for more frequent and softer stools,” Dr. Clarke tells POPSUGAR. When you aren’t able to take care of yourself the way that you should, the opposite can happen — which can cause you to feel bloated and backed up.

How Can You Treat Stress-Induced Constipation?

There’s often no simple or quick fix for managing stress, but it’s important that you take steps to address it, whether that means taking up meditation or yoga, setting boundaries at work or at home, or seeing a doctor or therapist to dig deeper on the things that are causing you to feel chronically stressed out. In the meantime, you need to make sure you’re meeting your most basic needs.

That means staying as active as possible, drinking plenty of water, and eating a healthy, balanced diet. “Increase your intake of foods high in fiber like beans, squash, berries, green vegetables, seeds, grains, high-fiber cereals, fruit, nuts, and avocados,” Dr. Clarke says. These healthy habits will likely alleviate any constipation, but if your symptoms continue for more than a few weeks, make an appointment with your doctor.

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