Q: This is embarrassing, but I struggle with constipation, particularly when I am under stress. I have trouble relaxing and either have difficulty having bowel movements or have only partial movements. Is there something nutritional you can suggest to help me?
A: There are many nutritional strategies to try, but let me preface that with a caveat: Look at the triggers that instigate or worsen the constipation. In this case, you already mentioned that stress is a trigger for you. Stress can cause constipation in several ways. In response to stress, the body’s adrenal glands release a hormone called epinephrine, which causes the body to divert blood flow from the intestines to the vital organs, such as the heart, lungs, and brain. Intestinal movement decreases, and constipation can occur. The body also releases corticotrophin- releasing factor in the bowels, which can slow down activity in the intestines and cause inflammation. In addition, stress causes intestinal permeability, which allows inflammatory compounds to come into the intestines, often leading to a feeling of abdominal fullness, and it may affect healthy bacteria in the gut, thus slowing digestion.
Overcoming stress-related constipation involves both stress-reduction techniques and natural remedies. You may have to do a little experimenting to discover which of these strategies work best for you.
Try Supplementing with Magnesium
Magnesium is the most important supplement for stress-related constipation. It’s an essential dietary mineral that nearly half of all Americans—and by some estimates up to 80 percent—do not get enough of from their diets. Furthermore, magnesium is sequestered and wasted via urine in times of stress. Stress can cause magnesium depletion, and a lack of magnesium magnifies stress.
Furthermore, constipation, along with other stress-related symptoms such as irritable bowel, headaches, anxiety, and depression, can be telltale signs of magnesium deficiency. Proper magnesium intake is important for healthy elimination because it softens stools by drawing water into the bowels. It also plays a major role in regulating muscle contractions in the intestines.
Daily supplementation with magnesium is the easy answer to many longstanding stress-related constipation problems. You can take capsules, tablets, or powders that you mix into beverages. Magnesium citrate is the most commonly used form in supplements.
Related: Are You Getting Enough Magnesium?
Start slowly with 300 mg a day. If that amount doesn’t work, gradually increase your dosage up to 1,200 mg a day. If you end up taking too much, the main side effect is loose stools, which obviously provides relief for someone experiencing constipation! You can avoid the problem of overly loose bowel movements by taking less, or sometimes by switching to a different form of magnesium.
9 Nutritional Strategies to Try
- Increase Your Fiber Intake. Sometimes eating a fiber-rich apple and drinking a glass of water two hours after dinner does the trick for promoting a well-formed movement the next morning. Other sources of fiber to try in your diet include fruit with skin or seeds; vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, and artichokes; avocados; beans; brown rice; and foods made with flaxseeds.
- Include Some Healthy Fat. In some cases, dry, hard stools result from too little healthy fat in the diet. Try adding a tablespoon of olive oil or flaxseed oil to raw or cooked vegetables. These fats have anti-inflammatory properties and can lubricate the intestines and ease constipation.
- Water Yourself. A common cause of constipation is dehydration. Make an effort to drink more water, especially on sweltering hot summer days.
- Think BLM: Bulk (Fiber); Lubrication (Healthy Fat); and Moisture (Water). Sometimes it takes all three—fiber, healthy fat, and fluids—on a regular basis to help you become regular again.
- Pay attention to foods that block you up. Foods that can cause constipation in some people include wheat- and other gluten-containing products; dairy products; eggs; red meat; and fried foods. Sometimes, all you need to do is avoid the foods that cause you trouble.
- Try the time-tested digestive remedies peppermint or ginger. This is especially helpful if you have gas accompanying constipation. Peppermint contains menthol, which has an antispasmodic effect that relaxes the muscles of the digestive tract. Ginger is considered a “warming” herb that herbalists say can help speed up sluggish digestion. You can take either in capsule or tea form. One of my clients found that taking ginger capsules calmed inflammation in her colon and lessened her gas, which settled her digestive tract and allowed her to have smooth movements.
- Experiment with the old folk remedy of prunes. Three prunes contain three grams of fiber, and also a phenolic compound that triggers the intestinal contraction that makes you want to go.
- Have a cup of coffee for quick constipation relief. Coffee can stimulate movement of the colonic muscles, so it often works well in a pinch. But don’t overuse it: the caffeine in coffee can be a diuretic when used in large amounts, so keep your intake of coffee moderate. Also, be sure to drink enough water to keep yourself hydrated.
- Try high doses (1 gram and up) of vitamin C. This basic vitamin can loosen stools and help relieve constipation.
“Let Go” of Stress
It’s important to find effective ways to take the edge off stress. Based on my experience counseling clients with stress-related constipation, here are some tips:
- Talk out your feelings with a trusted friend. This works like a charm for a few of my clients: When they express their worries and have emotionally supportive conversations with a person on their side, their emotional upset eases and tight muscles relax.
- After you take appropriate action toward your goal, “let go” of control by doing something that calms and grounds you. That could be doing exercise or physical activity, even something as simple as a walk in a park or practicing tai chi, qigong, or yoga. Oftentimes, when we lessen the stress we are feeling and balance our emotional and spiritual energy, our body’s natural elimination processes will kick in and work more efficiently.
- Make an effort to get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to constipation, but it can be difficult to fall asleep during times of stress. Supplemental magnesium can often help improve quality of sleep. Magnesium is essential for nervous system regulation and might help lessen people’s response to anxiety and fear. It also helps relax the muscles enough to make it easier to sleep. When people are able to get a long, restful sleep after several mostly sleepless nights, they often wake up the next day and are able to have a large, clearing bowel movement.