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It’s one of the most common maladies people quietly complain about. Constipation is something almost everyone experiences at some time, affecting some 4 million Americans who make 2.5 million visits to their doctors for help6. So, what is causing all this discomfort?
There are several common causes of occasional constipation. But first, it’s important to understand how your lower digestive tract (your colon or large intestine) works.
How Your Colon Works
It is the primary waste elimination system for the body and, when it is not working optimally, constipation can happen. As the food you eat moves through your colon, it absorbs water from the food, forms waste products, or stool, and then passes it along through muscle contractions toward your rectum for elimination. It’s a pretty efficient system, except when events cause it to slow down. Constipation occurs when the colon absorbs too much water and/or if your colon muscle contractions are slow or sluggish and your stools move too slowly through it. The result can be stools that are hard, small and dry.
Common Causes of Constipation You Should Know3
There are several common causes of constipation that everyone should know. Knowing what causes a condition like constipation can help you find ways to avoid unnecessary bouts of discomfort. It is also important that you deal with your constipation. Ignoring it can be problematic.
An important and easily remedied cause of constipation is your diet. It makes sense. What you put into your body does matter. People who eat too many high-fat foods, like cheese, eggs, dairy products and meats and not enough high-fiber foods, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains create the conditions that can lead to constipation. To help your digestive system function smoothly, adopt a diet rich in fiber.
See list of high-fiber foods here.
Get high-fiber food recipes here.
Inadequate fluid intake can also contribute to constipation. Your body needs uncaffeinated liquids, unless you are fluid restricted. Remember, your colon absorbs lots of water. To keep your stools soft and easy to eliminate, drink water frequently throughout the day.
Too little activity or exercise is another cause of occasional constipation. It makes sense, that if you fail to move your body, your digestive system slows down. Experts note that people who have been hospitalized, are bedridden and cannot exercise, often find themselves with constipation.
Stress can also contribute to occasional constipation. Why? Experts believe a stressful lifestyle may create the climate for constipation. If your life is stress-filled, you may not eat right, your daily schedule may be upended, you may not sleep well, you may forget to drink plenty of water, you may not find time to exercise and you may ignore your body’s messages that it is time to “go.” All these behaviors can contribute to a lifestyle that makes you susceptible to irregularity and constipation.
Many medications—both prescription and over-the-counter medications—can cause constipation. People often tell me that it never occurred to them that the medications they are taking might be related to their occasional constipation. Sometimes your body will adjust to the medication and your body will return to normal after a short time. In other cases, such as with certain pain, high blood pressure, and cholesterol medications, constipation may become an ongoing problem. If this happens, you should speak with your doctor for a recommended treatment. See full list of medications associated with constipation here.
Certain medical conditions, like stroke, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diabetes and childbirth^, can cause constipation. These conditions can affect the normal rhythm of your body, slow down your bowel movements and result in constipation. You should discuss your medical condition with your doctor and if it might be the cause of your constipation.
Your own inattention to your body’s signals or lack of self-awareness can result in occasional constipation. If you are not in tune with your body’s cues—the urge to go, the onset of bloatedness, discomfort or gassiness, or having incomplete bowel movements, to name just a few—then you may be missing the important signals to “go” as well as the signals that tell you that you are experiencing constipation.
Finally, if you are a constipation sufferer, pay attention to your condition as it could be a symptom related to another condition, like hemorrhoids, or even something more serious. Speak with your doctor to get help understanding your condition and to find the right way to address it.
^If pregnant or nursing, ask a healthcare professional before use.