Have you ever played the game of CLUE?
If you were born in or around the Baby Boomer generation, then you may recall it is a board game that challenges you and other players to resolve a murder mystery – getting answers to who, what, where, and why.
The usual suspects in this game all have stereotypes connected with their character, and so to win you have to rely on deductive reasoning.
It is a classic detective game.
Constipation is an unfortunate health problem that has some “usual suspects” as well. Figuring out the causes and solutions may seem full of chance and mystery. However, just as in CLUE, deductive reasoning can be your ally.
Here are 7 common causes and 7 natural relief tips to try when this “offender” is at your door.
Are you thirsty right now? If yes, then there is a good chance you are dehydrated.
Dehydration is one of the most common culprits of chronic constipation.
When you are low on fluids, the colon will pull water from your stool to maintain proper hydration levels, resulting in hard wastes that are difficult to pass. Limited fluids also affect the muscles involved in moving feces out of the body – with a consequence of less flexibility and efficiency.
A sudden fluid loss or fluid restriction was shown in studies to increase constipation risks.(1)
Some of us may be more at risk of dehydration than others:
- People who work outside
- Older adults
- People on some medications
- Someone with gastrointestinal issues
- Someone who has spent a long day in the heat
The good news is that constipation caused by dehydration is an easy fix – drink adequate fluids.
- Drink a full glass of water first thing in the morning before you allow anything else to touch your lips. More than likely your body has been without water for 8 or more hours when you first awake. If you had a cocktail or two the night before then you are even more dehydrated because of alcohol’s effect on the kidneys and liver. Coffee lovers can still have a morning cup of Joe – just drink your water first.
- If you suspect that dehydration is the wrongdoer in your constipation, then try this drink two times a day: 16 ounces of water, 1 pinch of sea salt, 1 tsp of raw honey.
- Shoot for 8 eight-ounce glasses of water daily. Add 2 or more glasses to this if the weather is hot, you are working outside, or if you are exercising.
- Try not to wait until you are thirsty to drink. The thirst mechanism is actually a signal from your brain that you are already low on fluids.
2) Acidic Imbalance in Your Gut
Your stomach is a hostile environment – or at least it needs to be. Proper breakdown and absorption of food relies on some pretty powerful acids. If you are over 50 there is a chance that your body’s acid creation has slowed down. When you have a low acid balance in your gut, several problems including constipation can occur.
In addition, acid production can be affected negatively by these interferences:
- Chronic stress
- Pancreatic issues
- A poor diet
- Celiac Disease
- Chronic inflammation
Other symptoms that may indicate you have low stomach acid are some skin conditions, acid reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, and a nutrient deficiency.
- Drink apple cider vinegar daily. Here is a recipe that makes it palatable: 1 Tbl of lemon juice, 2 Tbl of apple cider vinegar (ACV), and one squeeze of honey. Mix with 12 – 16 oz of water and pour over ice.
- Use Manuka honey in your ACV drink or in a cup of hot tea. It can aid in balancing your gut microflora.
- Chew your food thoroughly. In our fast-paced culture, we tend to hurry our meals. Help your digestive process along by allowing saliva and your teeth to do their job.
3) Overgrowth of Bad Bacteria
Did you know that a battle between good and evil happens daily in your gut? Simply put, the good bacteria are always fighting to keep the bad bacteria at bay.
A well-known perpetrator of gastrointestinal distress is when the bad bacteria are not kept in check and an overgrowth occurs.
Your gut microflora is ever changing. Science is now finding that the alterations in your gut microbiome may be contributing to constipation.(2)
For example, if you have an overgrowth of the bad bacteria that produce methane gas, the movement of your bowels slows down significantly, resulting in constipation symptoms.(3)
Unfortunately for our health, several lifestyle choices cause our good bacteria to be killed off. Here are just a few examples:
- Taking antibiotics
- Chronic stress
- Poor diet
- Tap water
Since these are quite common for most people, it is important to look at ways to strengthen your good bacteria.
- Take a quality probiotic supplement. This is a simple way to ensure that you are introducing good bacteria to your gut regularly. When choosing a probiotic check to make sure that B. longum and S. boulardii are present as they have both been found to help with constipation. For more information on these two probiotic bacteria read this article on Bifidobacterium Longum or this one on Saccharomyces boulardii.
- Include probiotic foods in your daily nutrition. These include Greek yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha tea, apple cider vinegar, and pickled vegetables.
4) Not Enough Roughage
Grandma was right – you need more roughage.
With access to so many processed foods that have been stripped of fiber, it is no wonder we struggle with gastrointestinal problems.
Fiber has a two-fold benefit for our digestive process. First, because the majority of it does not break down and absorb, it adds bulk to our stool, causing it to move at a good pace through our system.
Secondly, many foods that contain fiber also act as a prebiotic – which simply put is the food for our probiotic bacteria. Here are several choices for you to get fiber and prebiotics:
For more information on prebiotics and how they help your gut read this article.
- Aim to include fiber in every meal. Be sure to drink plenty of water as this optimizes the benefits of fiber.
- Choose snacks such as nuts and seeds because they supply you with fiber, protein, and vitamins.
5) Too Many Medications
There aren’t too many things more frustrating than taking a medication for one condition only to cause another. Unfortunately, this is the case for some people. If you are on any of these types of meds and you are experiencing chronic constipation, you may have found the guilty party (4).
- Some blood pressure meds
- Iron supplements
- Calcium supplements
- Opioid pain meds
- Anti-Parkinson’s meds
For some of these, like the opioid pain meds, the drugs negatively affect the muscles that push stool through the bowels, resulting in very slow transit. For others, it hardens the stool, making it difficult to pass.
Obviously, there are times when medications are necessary. If you have determined with your doctor that there are no natural methods available to treat your existing condition then try these tips.
- Ask your doctor if you could switch to a different brand or type of med to treat your condition. Not all medications have the same side effects or respond in the body the same way.
- Follow the 6 other tips in this article to ensure your best chance at keeping your bowels moving regularly.
6) Lack of Movement/Exercise
A body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to stay at rest.
Do you remember hearing this in science class? It is Newton’s First Law of Motion. Not surprisingly, it has application in regards to our health as well.
But you don’t have to be a scientist to know that a sedentary life creates its own problems – and constipation is one of them.
We also know that lack of exercise is a major cause of many other diseases.(5)
Here are just a few (it is not an exhaustive list):
- Coronary heart disease
- Many types of cancer
- Cognitive dysfunction
The benefits of regular exercise and movement, on the other hand, seem to be endless and include positive effects on the GI tract.
Regular movement can speed up the digestive process by increasing the blood flow to your organs, activating the muscles in your digestive tract, and toning up the walls of your colon. All of these functions help to prevent constipation.
According to the American Heart Association, adults should get 30 – 60 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week or 20 – 60 minutes of higher intensity exercise three days a week.
- Choose a couple of forms of exercise that you like, to work different muscle groups and to keep you mentally engaged.
- If motivation to exercise comes at a premium for you then find a workout partner to keep you accountable.
- A certified personal trainer can help to design a personalized exercise program for you that is safe and realistic.
7) Chronic Stress
If you were a big fan of the game of CLUE you may have wondered who might be the most likely culprit in the real world. FBI statistics point to Mr. Green with the revolver.
If you applied statistics to figuring out why you are constipated, chronic stress has a high likelihood of being the prime suspect. When our bodies are kept in a state of continual stress there are far-reaching implications on our overall health.
In fact, 60% of all human diseases are caused by stress, according to the American Medical Association. In regards to our digestive process, stress is a factor in just about every condition.
In large part, this is due to the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Specifically, when it comes to constipation, an excess of cortisol causes water and sodium to be removed from the colon. This results in hardened stool that is difficult to pass.
- Limit stress-inducing elements as much as possible. Try not to overcommit.
- Learn ways to manage your stress with things such as yoga, journaling, consistent rest, and soul care.
- Be purposeful about getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, and making leisure time.
Awareness of how your lifestyle choices impact your digestion gives insight into the what, why, and how associated with constipation.
If you are struggling with a case of constipation, use your sleuthing techniques to figure out possible causes, then apply some of the suggested tips.
As with all health conditions seek medical attention if symptoms persist.
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the power of nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should I eat? Which supplements should I take? What does the science say?
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References1) Arnaud, MJ (2003) Mild dehydration: a risk factor of constipation? Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14681719
2) Zhao, Ying and Yu, Yan-Bo (2016) Intestinal microbiota and chronic constipation. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4951383/
3) Ghoshal, Uday C and Srivastava, Deepakshi and Verma, Abhai and Misra, Asha (2011) Slow Transit Constipation Associated With Excess Methane Production and Its Improvement Following Rifaximin Therapy: A Case Report. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3093012/
4) Fosnes, Gunvor S and Lydersen, Stian and Farup, Per G (2011) Constipation and diarrhoea – common adverse drug reactions? A cross sectional study in the general population. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3049147/
5) Booth, Frank W and Roberts, Christian K and Laye, Matthew J (2012) Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4241367/