Constipation can be a real bitch to deal with. Not only is it uncomfortable, but, over time, it can be super damaging to health.
If constipation isn’t dealt with, it can lead to things like dysbiosis (an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut), candida overgrowth, leaky gut (which can cause food allergies/sensitivities and lead to any number of health issues, including autoimmune conditions), and others.
For these reasons and more, it’s important to get a handle on constipation ASAP.
Common causes (and fixes) for constipation
Constipation can be caused by tons of different things… and if you want to truly heal, you’ll need to determine the root cause of your issues with constipation (constipation, after all, is not the actual problem… it’s a symptom of some sort of imbalance going on in your body).
Insufficient water intake (or overuse of things that can be dehydrating, such as coffee, tea, or alcohol) can cause major constipation. Without sufficient water, stool has a harder time moving through your digestive tract.
Some possible signs of dehydration include:
- Feeling thirsty (though you’re already dehydrated by the time you feel that sensation of thirst)
- Lower back pain
- Dry lips (or feeling like you always need to wear lip balm)
- Dark yellow urine
If your constipation is a result of dehydration, the fix is simple: drink more water. Aim to drink enough water to cause your urine to be very light yellow (almost clear) in color.
Having a crappy diet
Highly processed foods have a way of messing with digestion in more ways than one. A lot of the processed junk ends up being fuel for bad bacteria/pathogens in your gut… and, in the case of constipation, you’re providing those naughty pathogens with an environment that is more conducive for them to multiply (they basically get to enjoy a nice long feast of the putrefied food matter that’s hanging out in your digestive tract… isn’t that a lovely picture?!). The bad bacteria can also possibly congregate/multiply where they shouldn’t, causing all kinds of problems.
Your focus should be on eating whole, organic foods whenever possible. It’s also a good idea to get a mix of some raw foods into your diet, since uncooked foods have enzymes that are still intact (which can help you with digestion). Fermented foods can also be beneficial, since they’ll contain natural probiotics that will help support your microbiome (the probiotics/good bacteria will help put those bad bacteria in their place), which will do wonderful things for your overall health.
Lack of movement
If you’re pretty immobile for most of the day (which, let’s face it, most people are), that can slow down digestion big time. If you work at a desk job, it’s a good idea to stand up, stretch, or walk around at least every 30-60 minutes (the more often you move, the better). If you can, use your breaks to walk around the block or find other ways to infuse some more activity into your day.
If you’re feeling pretty stressed in your day-to-day life, this affects you on more than just an emotional level; stress affects just about every area of your life (and digestion is no exception here).
During the fight or flight response (which is your body’s physiological response to stress), digestion (along with other functions) slows down or stops altogether in order to allocate resources to your larger muscle groups (this gears you up to either fight off a threat, or run like hell from it).
This response is helpful in actual life-or-death situations (like encountering a mountain lion), but now-a-days it can be activated by any number of things… rush hour traffic, getting into an argument, worrying about bills, rushing to meet deadlines, etc. When stress becomes ongoing, this affects your health (and especially digestion) profoundly.
Check out my book, Stress Detox, for some actionable ways to reduce the stress in your life.
Having a shitty pooping environment
When you think of the ideal pooping environment, what images come to mind?
Candlelight? Soft mood music? Relaxing with some reading material?
What you should be thinking about is the toilet itself.
Believe it or not, the typical American toilet is not really conducive to proper pooping! When you sit on a typical toilet, the position that you’re in can actually prevent you from emptying out your colon completely (some stool may be left behind). The leftover stool can then harden and become difficult to pass.
The best thing you can do in this scenario is to get a footstool to bring your feet up to more of a ‘squatting’ (vs. ‘sitting’) position – this will put your colon in a better position to fully empty.
The Squatty Potty is specifically manufactured to elevate your legs for the ideal squatting position while pooping, plus it can tuck right up to the toilet when not in use.
If you want to add candlelight, mood music, and reading material, that also couldn’t hurt. 😉
Update: had to add this in for shits and giggles 😉
If you’ve been battling with constipation for a while, chances are the muscles in your colon have started to become weak, so it’s essential to start strengthening those muscles ASAP.
First thing in the morning, drink 2-3 cups (16-24 oz total) of warm water (it may also help to add some fresh lemon juice to the water). 30 minutes after drinking, sit on the toilet and try to poop (but don’t strain!) – do this whether or not you feel the urge to poop and stay there for at least 5 minutes. Repeat this every morning at the same time each day.
The idea is to try and create a regular ‘pooping schedule’. Make sure you keep at it even if you don’t see results right away – this process needs time to work.
Lack of digestive enzymes and/or hydrochloric acid
Sometimes constipation may be related to incomplete digestion of foods.
Your body makes digestive enzymes to break down foods into things that can actually be used (proteins get broken down into amino acids, fats get broken down into fatty acids and cholesterol, etc.). Hydrochloric acid (HCl) also aids in digestion (it’s needed for absorption of several nutrients… and those with low HCl often complain of difficulty digesting meat).
If your constipation is related to insufficient production of enzymes or HCl, supplementation may help.
Aside from constipation, other possible signs of incomplete digestion include gas, bloating, feeling like a rock is sitting in your gut, heartburn (yes, heartburn can actually be a result of too little acid), feeling full after just a few bites, seeing undigested food in your stool, having poop that consistently floats… among others.
(One DIY test that you can use to see if you might have low HCl is the baking soda test – download the test guidelines here.)
It’s important to note that the production of digestive enzymes and HCl in your body doesn’t just stop working properly without a reason… if you’re low in enzymes and/or HCl, it’s important to figure out why.
Some things that can interfere with digestive enzyme and/or HCl production include: pancreatic issues, celiac disease, inflammation, chronic stress (there’s that S-word again), nutrient deficiencies, and others.
If you want to try digestive enzymes, it’s a good idea to find a product with multiple enzymes (such as Vital-Zymes Complete by Klaire Labs) so you cover all your bases. For HCl, Thorne’s Betaine HCl with Pepsin is a good option.
Magnesium can be an effective tool for helping with constipation – it pulls more water into the colon, (making the stool easier to pass) and it can also help relax the muscles in your intestines (making a smoother rhythm that aids in elimination). On top of that, it’s estimated that roughly 80% of the U.S. population is low in magnesium, so, unless you have certain medical conditions (like kidney issues), it’s not a bad idea to bump up your magnesium levels.
A lot of people find it helpful to start with around 100mg or so of magnesium citrate right before bed. If you don’t notice improvements around 100mg, you can gradually bump up the dose to a level that works for you (some people may need a few hundred milligrams per day). If you increase the dose too quickly, you may get diarrhea.
The nice thing about magnesium is that it’s pretty safe to take (magnesium “toxicity” is unlikely to occur, since excess magnesium is filtered out and expelled through your urine and stool; those with kidney problems or certain other medical issues are more at risk of “toxicity”).
To be on the safe side, check with your doctor before taking magnesium.
(If you want to get your magnesium levels tested before supplementing, serum magnesium tests are pretty useless, since the body will pull magnesium from other places in order to keep serum/blood levels consistent; RBC magnesium tests are better indicators of your magnesium status.)
Certain medical issues
In some cases, constipation can be a sign of something more serious, such as hypothyroidism (or some other type of endocrine dysfunction), celiac disease, neurological dysfunction, underlying inflammation/food sensitivities, or others.[It’s also important to note that certain medications (and even certain supplements) can be constipating, so if you’re on meds, check to see if constipation could be one of the side effects.]
If you find yourself still struggling with constipation after all of these tips, you may have something more serious going on that will need to be addressed. If you’ve already been tested for celiac disease, thyroid issues, and other conditions, a good next step is to reduce some of your underlying inflammation.
It’s truly amazing what the body can accomplish when inflammation is reduced… and people are consistently shocked at how much the inflammation caused by foods and chemicals contributed to many of their health issues (aside from improvements in digestive health, it’s not uncommon to experience improvements in energy levels, feeling more level-headed, improvements in hormone levels, less aches and pains, better blood sugar control, and others). So, when in doubt, focus on inflammation.