What is constipation?
Constipation is defined as not being able to pass stools in a regular manner, or being unable to fully empty your bowels. Most people experience constipation only for a short period of time. However, it can be a chronic condition to some.
Chronic constipation can result in prolonged discomfort and significant pain, which can affect a person’s quality of life. Constipation typically occurs when stools remain in the large intestine for a prolonged period.
In constipated individuals, the large intestine absorbs too much water from the stools, making them hard and dry. It often means that the bowel movements happen less than normal or are tough to pass.
Signs and Symptoms
When people are constipated, it is more difficult for them to pass stool and they will, therefore, move their bowels less frequently.
Some have them once or twice a week and some have them thrice a day. If one goes about without passing stool for more than three days, then the feces or stool becomes very hard and difficult to pass.
Stools may also appear hard, dry, and lumpy. Other symptoms include feeling bloated, loss of appetite, nausea, and stomachache or cramps.
Women are commonly affected by constipation than men. Older adults and pregnant women are also more commonly affected.
Signs of Constipation
- Straining to pass stool
- Throwing up
- Pain in the belly or belly looks swollen
- Small stools
Causes of Constipation
Often, the cause of constipation is hard to identify. Most cases are not caused by a particular condition. However, there are a range of factors that can contribute to constipation. They include:
- Lacking fiber (found in fruits and vegetables) in one's diet, which is the most common cause
- Ignoring the urge to pass stools
- Change in lifestyle or routine
- Side effect of medication
- Depression or anxiety
- Lack of exercise
- Being overweight or underweight
- Colon cancer
- Consuming a lot of dairy products
- Eating disorders
- Neurological issues
- Overuse of laxatives
- Lack of fluid intake on a daily basis
- Emotional or mental stress
In some cases, constipation may be a sign of an underlying medical condition such as diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), hypothyroidism, multiple sclerosis (MS), spinal cord injury (SCI), and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
The following are the detailed causes of constipation:
- Hypothyroidism: Also known as the underactive thyroid disease, slows down one's metabolic process. However, not everyone with hypothyroidism has constipation problems nor everyone with constipation has an underactive thyroid gland.
- Painkillers: Narcotics can cause constipation. People who are chronic users of pain relievers such as aspirin and ibuprofen face a lot of constipation issues.
- Chocolate: For some people, chocolate has been the cause of their constipation, but for a few, it has actually helped them with their bowel movements. Cut back on eating chocolates if you think they are the cause of your constipation.
- Vitamins: In general, vitamins do not cause constipation. However, there are certain components such as iron and calcium, which do pose a problem.
- Overuse of laxatives: Laxatives work by stimulating the bowel movements. Hence, certain laxatives should be taken only as directed by the doctor. Any medications, including laxatives, should not be taken for a longer duration or else they can cause other health issues.
- Dairy products: A diet rich in cheese, butter, and milk can at times slow down the digestive system. Cut down your dairy intake and increase your fiber intake to 20 or 35 grams per day instead. Avoid eating fast foods, processed foods, and foods with preservatives. At times, you can have cheese or few dairy items mix in salads or other foods.
- Depression: Sometimes, depression can be the cause of constipation. Medications that are used to treat depression can also slow down the digestive process. Depression causes a general slowdown of the body’s normal process. People suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can also be closely linked with depression.
- Blood pressure medications: Constipation can also happen as a side effect of common drugs used to treat high blood pressure. Diuretics lower the blood pressure by increasing the urine output. It causes a reduction of water in the body, which is normally used to keep the stools soft and get them out of the body.
Some people have generally underactive bowels. You can usually tell if you have underactive bowels if you drink plenty of fluids, have a healthy diet, do not take medications that cause constipation, have no other illness, and are still constipated. It is called as primary or functional constipation.
When to seek medical help?
- If you are experiencing cramping pain in your belly
- You notice blood in your stool
- This is the first time you have encountered constipation as your problem
- Stools are small and pencil-thin
- Severe pain while passing stool
- Sudden weight loss
The doctor would recommend certain tests to be carried to find the root cause of the issue.
Certain medications may cause constipation. Some of these drugs include:
- Antiepileptic drugs
- Calcium supplements
- Aluminum antacids
- Opioid painkillers
- Iron supplements
Constipation typically improves once patients stop taking the medication. However, it is important that you never discontinue a medication unless instructed by your physician. If you experience constipation due to certain drugs, discuss it with your physician. Your doctor can help you find an alternative.
Apart from medication, one can take the following steps if constipated:
- After waking up in the morning, have at least one glass of warm water.
- Drink at least 2-4 extra glasses of water every day. However, drinking water should be restricted if your doctor asked you to limit your fluid intake.
- Ensure to add fresh fruits and vegetables in your daily diet.
- Avoid the use of laxatives for more than two weeks. If you overdo it, the symptoms may worsen.
Constipation and Pregnancy
Constipation is a common problem among pregnant women, particularly those in the early stages. About 2 in every 5 women experience constipation while they are pregnant. Constipation happens during pregnancy because the body generates more progesterone, a hormone that acts as a muscle relaxant.
Normally, the bowel moves the stools and other waste products to the anus through peristalsis. Peristalsis occurs when the muscles inside the layer of the bowel contract and relax in a wave-like movement. When progesterone levels increase, it is more difficult for the bowel to contract. Thus, it is harder for women's bodies to move stools and waste products.
Children and Babies
Constipation is also common among babies and children. Factors such as poor diet, poor toilet training, and fear of using the toilet can be associated with this condition.
Overfed babies and children, as well as those who do not get enough fluids, are more prone to constipation. Babies who drink too much milk can also experience constipation.
How to Prevent Constipation
- Cut back on eating dairy products since they may cause constipation issues for certain people.
- Eat a well-balanced diet loaded with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Foods rich in fiber are especially good for people experiencing constipation. One should go in for whole grain bread, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
- Drink at least two liters of water and fluid per day. It is a must to keep your body healthy and to flush out toxic wastes. Fiber and water intake are a good combination to keep constipation at bay.
- Caffeine and tea should be avoided or you can restrict it to only one cup per day if really needed.
- Whenever you feel the urge, go to the bathroom. Do not stop yourself for later.
- Keep yourself active by at least working out 30 minutes every day. You can make it five times a week and rest your body on the weekends.
Below is the list of foods you can include in your diet to avoid constipation:
- Beans: Beans are rich in fiber. They are a mixture of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Both types of fiber help keep the food moving in the intestines, and thus, relieves constipation. Beans have more than 10 grams of fiber per cup. It can be part of your salads and pasta.
- Kiwi: One of the favorite picks for constipation relief. A medium kiwi has 2.5 grams of fiber. Plus, it is loaded with vitamins and minerals to keep the body healthy including your intestines.
- Sweet potatoes: A medium-sized baked sweet potato with its skin contains 3.8 grams of fiber. It should be eaten with its skin since the skin contains most of the fiber.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds and walnuts have more fiber than any other nuts. Sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, and flaxseeds are again rich sources of fiber. Just drizzle them as a topping on your salads or have it as it is. However, your intake should be within limits since these foods are rich in calories as well.
- Apples and pears: A pear provides around 5-6 grams of fiber along with its skin. Both fruits help regulate the digestive system. Pears are also good for babies with constipation issues.
- Flaxseeds: Flaxseeds are a good source of fiber, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are all good for the body. Brown and golden flaxseeds contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. You can dry roast flaxseeds and keep them in a tight container. Take one spoon of it daily. They can also be sprinkled on salads or oatmeal.
- Dried fruits: More than fresh fruits, dried fruits contain a lot of fiber. Prunes, figs, raisins, and apricots are all rich sources of fiber. Even though they are rich in fiber, which relieves constipation, they are also rich in calories. Hence, you should also limit your intake of these dried fruits.