Constipation is a common digestive issue that many people experience. It can range from mild cases lasting only a few hours or days, to more serious conditions lasting several weeks or even longer. What exactly is constipation? What causes it? How can you treat it? We cover everything you need to know about constipation in this article.
What Is Constipation?
Constipation is defined as "having hard, dry bowel movements or passing stool fewer than three times a week." Being constipated means your bowel movements are tough or happen less often than normal. Almost everyone goes through it at some point. In fact, it is one of the most common digestive problems in the United States.
What Is Chronic Constipation?
Chronic constipation occurs when your constipation issue is long-lasting. The general definition for chronic constipation is "a stool frequency of less than three per week that lasts several months." Since everyone has different bowel movements, this may be different for different people. For some it may just mean that they have infrequent bowel movements for weeks at a time. For others, it could mean that they find themselves constantly straining or having difficulty passing stools, or feeling like they have to go, but when they sit down, nothing comes out.
What Are the Symptoms of Constipation?
Each person has bowel habits that are unique to them. Some people go many times a day, while others may only go a few times a week. That being said, you may be constipated if you experience any of the following constipation symptoms:
- fewer than three bowel movements a week
- excessive straining during bowel movements
- pain when passing stool
- feeling like you have to go, but not being able to have a bowel movement
- passing lumpy, hard or dry stools
- feeling unable to have a full bowel movement, or like there is still more in your system even after having a bowel movement
If your constipation symptoms don't go away, it is recommended to seek medical advice as it could be related to an underlying digestive condition like Chron’s disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
What Causes Constipation?
Constipation can have a variety of underlying causes. To better understand constipation, let’s first review the job of the colon.
The colon is the longest part of the large intestine. Once the nutrients from food have been absorbed in your small intestine, the food moves to the large intestine where the leftover material is dehydrated. The colon absorbs water from the remaining food, converting the rest into waste (stool). The muscles of the colon then move the remaining stool out through the rectum to be eliminated. If stool sits in the colon for too long, it can become hard and difficult to pass.
Constipation is most often linked to diet, though there can be other causes. In order to keep your stool soft, and to support digestion and elimination, you need to make sure you are drinking enough water and eating enough fiber. Fiber increases the weight and size of stool while also softening it, making it easier to pass through the rectum.
In many cases of constipation, people find relief simply by changing their diet, drinking more water and eating more fiber. Typically, plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables are high in dietary fiber. All the more reason to eat your veggies!
Other common causes of constipation unrelated to diet are stress, travel, and changes in routine. This can throw off your body's natural rhythm, and may make it difficult to pass stool.
Some of the most common causes of constipation include:
- low fiber diets
- lack of physical movement and exercise
- changes in routine
- holding bowel movements/suppressing the urge to go
- certain medications
- older age (constipation tends to affect people more after age 60)
Some underlying health issues can also cause constipation. Digestive diseases like IBS or diverticulosis may cause constipation. Hormonal problems, including an underactive thyroid gland may also cause constipation, as can several other health conditions. This is why it is important to check with your doctor about your constipation issues, especially if they last more than a couple days.
Constipation and Parasites
Sometimes constipation seems unexplained. You may have constipation even when eating a high-fiber diet, drinking a lot of water, exercising regularly, and following other health habits that prevent constipation. In some cases, constipation can be caused by intestinal parasites.
Parasites are a common health issue that many people suffer from. They are so common in fact, that it is estimated that 3.1 billion people worldwide have at least one type of parasite in their body. They often go undiagnosed, and do not always show symptoms.
The signs of a parasite are often caused by the toxins that it releases into the human bloodstream. Some of the most common symptoms include: unexplained constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, nausea or other symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Gut health and constipation are often connected. Parasites can wreak havoc on your gut, and so parasites and constipation often go hand-in-hand for those suffering a parasitic infection. If all of the other causes don’t seem to add up, and the constipation seems unexplained, consider talking to your doctor about the possibility of a parasitic infection.
How Do You Treat Constipation?
Treating constipation will be different for each person depending on how severe their constipation is. However, there are some general guidelines that can make a world of difference. Changing your diet to include more fiber, and less foods that lack fiber or contribute to constipation, as well as increasing water intake and increasing your physical activity level are the easiest and fastest ways to treat and prevent constipation.
You can also try any of the following constipation remedies as well:
- Add fiber-rich foods to your diet, such as raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans. These are good foods for constipation as they help to stimulate bowel movements.
- Reduce your intake of meat, milk, cheese, and other low fiber foods.
- Stay hydrated.
- Aim for about 30 minutes of exercise per day, at least five times per week.
- Don’t hold it in or delay if you feel the urge to have a bowel movement.
- Try using a footstool when having a bowel movement. Raising your knees in this way may make it easier to have a bowel movement.
- Limit your consumption of alcohol and caffeinated drinks, which cause dehydration.
- Use a laxative if necessary, but try to avoid using them, or use them for only a couple days as the body can develop a dependence on them, which would be counterproductive to helping alleviate your constipation.
How Do You Prevent Constipation?
A healthy diet and lifestyle can help to prevent constipation in the first place. With many health issues, prevention is often much easier than treatment. Tips for preventing constipation are similar to those for relieving it. Some helpful tips to keep in mind for preventing constipation are:
- Drink plenty of water each day.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Eat high fiber foods or consider taking a natural fiber supplement like psyllium husks.
- Exercise regularly.
- Consider adding probiotics (link product) to your diet to improve overall intestinal health.
Research suggests that adding probiotics to your diet can be helpful if you suffer from chronic constipation. As constipation is a digestive condition it is often related to the state of health of your gut. Focusing on improving gut health and following the tips mentioned above can help to prevent constipation.
Constipation is a common problem that affects many people, especially as they get older. Most cases of constipation are mild and easily treated with changes in diet and exercise. Some of the biggest causes of constipation are low-fiber diets, dehydration, and lack of exercise. Therefore, many cases of constipation can be remedied by increasing fiber intake, drinking more water, and exercising more regularly. If you are experiencing chronic constipation or constipation along with other bowel changes, it’s important that you talk with a healthcare professional.