Why do we get constipated?

why do we get constipated blog image

In my role as a colon hydrotherapist and the founder of Just For Tummies, barely a day goes by when I’m not asked about constipation.  This comes as no surprise to me. According to a recent study carried out at King’s College London, 1 in 7 adults and 1 in 3 children in the UK suffer from constipation. 

In fact, we are one of the most constipated nations on earth!

Unfortunately, we don’t really discuss the frequency of our bowel movements because we find it embarrassing, which is ridiculous in my opinion. Constipation needs to be talked about openly; it can be a serious condition. It brings about an increase in the risk of nasty gut infections, diverticular disease, not to mention colo-rectal cancers which are the second biggest cancer killer in the country.  At the very least, it can make us feel out of synch with our bodies, tired, spotty, headachy.

We need to talk and we need to know how to resolve constipation. And, not just to reduce our risk of constipated-related diseases, but to give us a better quality of life, with more energy, a better mood, clear skin and a slim, healthy body. So let’s have no more poo taboo!

What is constipation?

Constipation happens when stools remain the large bowel too long and the bowel absorbs too much water from the stools, causing them to become hard and dry. This causes them to get stuck and sometimes no amount of water, fibre or laxatives can get the stools to move.

Symptoms of constipation (courtesy of The Mayo Clinic) are:

  • Passing fewer than three stools per week
  • Having lumpy or hard stools
  • Straining to have a bowel movement
  • Feeling as though there’s a blockage in your rectum that prevents bowel movements
  • Feeling as though you can’t fully empty the stool from your rectum
  • Needing help to empty your rectum, such as using your hands to press on your abdomen and using a finger to remove stool from your rectum

What causes constipation?

The cause of constipation, and many other disorders of the digestive system and gut, isn’t always obvious.  But when we take a closer look at modern lifestyles, we start to understand how our daily routine, our sleep patterns, our stress levels, the medications we take and our dietary habits can have more of an impact than we think on the health of our bodies.

Let’s take a closer look at your daily habits and lifestyle and see if we can pinpoint what might be causing your constipation. Here are a few possible causes:

  • Your diet – eating too many foods rich in animal fats (dairy products, meats, and eggs) or refined sugar but low in fibre (whole grains, fruits, and vegetables)
  • Too much gluten – when gluten, especially the poor quality gluten found in cheap, overly processed breads, cakes and biscuits gets into the digestive system, it can slow down digestion, as the intestines valiantly try to push the ‘gloopy’ gluten through
  • Inadequate fluid intake – not drinking enough water can lead to hard, dry stools. Fluid is absorbed in the intestine, and people who don’t drink enough water may not pass enough water into the colon to keep their stools soft.
  • Coffee – for many, coffee makes an ideal morning bowel stimulant, but anything that contains caffeine can also cause dehydration in the body, including the bowel so if you suffer from constipation, eliminate anything containing caffeine and monitor your symptoms. If the bowel is not receiving sufficient water to move stools along, the stools will get trapped and harden into a mass, making it more challenging for the bowel to push the wastes along and out.
  • Imbalance in gut bacteria – if you are deficient in beneficial gut bacteria, perhaps due to ageing, antibiotics or a gut infection like food poisoning, then this may be the reason you are constipated. Your intestines need billions of beneficial bacteria to help normalise transit time. If you are over the age of 45, have had a course of antibiotics and/or had food poisoning, take a three-month course of Live Bacteria probiotic capsules, one before breakfast and one before bed, to help recolonise the gut.
Live bacteria by Just for tummies for use to prevent constipation
The Just For Tummies Live Bacteria Capsules
  • Alcohol – large amounts of alcohol can slow down digestion and increase the risk of constipation
  • Certain medicines, such as some types of antidepressants, antacids, calcium or iron supplements, or painkillers can cause constipation
  • Not doing enough exercise – transit time in the bowel relies on exercise to stimulate it and help push wastes along
  • Not going to the toilet when you need to go – the bowel relies on certain reflexes, messages from the brain, to enable it to empty.  If you ignore these reflexes (urges), the brain and the bowel will stop ‘talking’ to each other, and you won’t get the urge to go
  • Your age –as you age, your gut bacteria begin to die off in their billions.  You need these bacteria to help ensure you have a strong immune system in your later years, and also ensure that healthy transit time is maintained in the bowel, and you don’t get constipated.

Can health conditions trigger constipation?

You can also get constipation as a symptom of some health conditions, which include:

  • Piles
  • A long, loopy bowel
  • Bowel prolapses
  • Adhesions and scar tissue from previous abdominal operations
  • Anal fissure
  • IBS
  • Underactive thyroid
  • Liver issues, especially if insufficient bile is being produced. Bile is needed to assist in normal bowel transit time
  • Conditions that affect your nervous system, such as Parkinson’s disease or MS
  • Diabetes
  • Rectal or colon cancer

Many people run the gauntlet of tests to try and understand what is causing their constipation, and very often the medics can find no real cause.  It’s important, of course, to make sure there is nothing serious that could be causing the constipation, but if it is just ‘functional’ constipation, then the advice is usually ‘keep taking the laxatives’.  However, I can assure you that much more can be done to resolve constipation – and I should know having helped tens of thousands of people do just that!

How can you resolve constipation?

I will talk about the ways in which constipation can be resolved naturally in more detail in my next blog post, but for now I will say this.  The most important first step you should take if you are struggling to sort out your constipation is to SLOW DOWN! If you are living in a constant state of ‘fight or flight’, the last thing your brain wants you to be doing is going to the loo!  The brain wants to get you ready to fight or flee and, as such, all the blood in the stomach and intestines are transported to the heart, brain and muscles, effectively closing down your gut.

We live in a fast-paced world, eating too fast, eating on the go, and making poor food choices, as well as forgetting to drink because we’re too busy getting stressed by all that we have to do – day in, day out.  It is absolutely OK for you to take an extra ten minutes to sit down on the toilet, an extra ten minutes to chew your food thoroughly; remember to take sips of water throughout the day; replace a couple of the caffeinated drinks with water or herbal tea; increase your fruit and veg intake.  Take another ten minutes later in the day to practise some mindfulness or simple deep breathing to lower your stress levels.  Show a little kindness to your body and it will respond.

If you want to know more about how to naturally resolve constipation, then download my FREE Constipation Fact Sheet here.