As someone who has personally struggled with constipation for about 7 years, I can say with full certainty that it sucks. Real bad. And I am not alone. It’s estimated that around 2.5 million people in the U.S. struggle with constipation. That’s 2.5 million too many.
In this article we’ll cover what constipation is, some of the reasons it occurs, especially the most common ones I see in my practice, what the health risks are of chronic constipation and some tips to help you go more frequently while you work on healing the root cause issues.
Constipation is medically defined as the difficult or infrequent passage of stool, hardness of stool, or a feeling of incomplete evacuation. Classically, doctor’s declare you constipated if you have less than 3 bowel movements per week, but that’s not the entire story. You can have a bowel movement or two every day and still be constipated if you are not completely evacuating, and still feel bloated, full and just generally backed up.
This was happening to me during my battle with SIBO and leaky gut. Conventional doctors assured me I wasn’t constipated because I was having a bowel movement every day, but they were wrong. I was miserable and so backed up.
There is something known as the Bristol Stool chart, which helps people determine if they are having healthy, regular bowel movements. I use this chart religiously with my clients and have them become very comfortable with tracking their type of poo for me so we can gauge their healing. Typically, a 1-3 on the chart is leaning toward more constipation, a type 4 is considered the “perfect poo” and types 5-7 is more on the diarrhea side. I tend to count type 3 and 5 bowel movements as on the more “regular” side as well, especially when a client is eliminating pathogens or detoxing their system because that will change bowel consistency.
If you’re looking for an easy answer, I’m sorry to say that I likely don’t have one. Sometimes constipation is complex and requires testing and analysis, food and mood journaling and constant monitoring to truly identify the source or sources of constipation. However for some people, the issue is less complicated. Let’s look at some of the most common reasons, starting from simple to complex.
Dehydration. If I had a dollar for every person who came to me dehydrated I’d be a millionaire! Okay, so maybe my practice isn’t quite that big, but you get the point: it’s incredibly common! So many people are walking around dehydrated and they have no idea. Why? Because no one ever really tells you how to hydrate properly or how much water you should be drinking for your body weight.
So if you are having trouble going, step 1 is to increase your water intake, with plenty of electrolytes. To calculate your daily minimum water intake, you take your body weight and divide it by two. So if I weigh 130 pounds, I should be drinking at least 65 fluid ounces of water a day. And that doesn’t account for exercise/sweating, and if I consume diuretics (substances that make you pee more!) like coffee/caffeine in general, fruit juices, soda, some herbal teas like dandelion root or peppermint, over the counter aspirin/ibuprofen and even some prescription drugs. So for every 8 ounce of diuretic, you need to drink 12-15 additional ounces of water on top of your daily intake to replenish what you’ve lost.
Where we tend to go wrong is that we don’t also make sure to add electrolytes (potassium, sodium, calcium and magnesium). These are minerals that act as little spark plugs in the body and they are essential for us to actually absorb the water we drink. Maybe you’ve upped your water intake in the past and noticed you are running to the bathroom to urinate every few hours. That’s likely because you aren’t actually absorbing the water. It’s passing right through. So try adding some electrolytes.
Easy electrolyte sources include a few pinches of sea salt/himalayan sea salt in your water (better if you add lemon juice, too!), drink coconut water or watermelon juice (cold pressed, always), or use a clean electrolyte solution or mineral drops. I really like Nuun hydration tablets or LMNT powder because they are not full of sugar like your typical “electrolyte” sports drink and they are easy to dissolve in water. Some people also like adding trace mineral drops like the ones from Concentrace into their water, however, I caution here as for some people, it can mess with your mineral balance.
Stress & sympathetic dominance. If you are chronically stressed and stuck in a sympathetic state, which means your body is in the fight or flight mode, then all of your non-essential functioning, including digestion and a process known as peristalsis that moves food/waste through the bowels is shut off. The gut-brain axis dysfunction is actually one of the biggest leading causes of irritable bowel syndrome today. This is why I focus on stress management techniques and vagal nerve toning exercises with my clients. The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves in the body. It starts in our brainstem and runs through our digestive tract, our heart, lungs, almost all vital organs. When it’s activated, we are able to drop into a calm, rest and digest state (parasympathetic state). However, when our vagus nerve is impaired, from stress, poor diet, lack of movement, etc., then we are chronically stressed and constipated.
Now this is a little bit of an oversimplification of how our autonomic nervous system works, but you get the main idea: stress is bad for our bowels! It causes inflammation, can interfere with proper enzyme function and muscle tension by altering our hormone and neurotransmitter functioning. We’ll cover some tips for stress management below.
Poor diet & lifestyle. Diets that are high in refined carbohydrates, processed/fast food, sugar and high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, bad fats/hydrogenated oils like canola, grapeseed, sunflower, soybean, corn, etc., and a lot of fake additives can increase the risk of constipation. This is usually because they are void of any real nutrients that our body needs to function optimally, and also because they can cause inflammation in the body. These types of foods are also very low in fiber and fiber is crucial for healthy regular bowel movements. What I just described is the typical standard American diet (SAD) and unfortunately, too many of us eat this way. Bowel movements aside, our Western diet is leading to more chronic illness than ever before, including obesity, cancer, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune diseases like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, etc., neurological and mood disorders like Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s/Dementia, anxiety, depression, Manic Depressive Disorder, ADD and ADHD, and chronic systemic inflammation, which is at the root of all of these above illnesses.
Lack of adequate sleep and immobility is also another big lifestyle factor for constipation. If you aren’t moving regularly then your body kind of just stays stagnant, your metabolism slows and things just get sluggish. Regular movement helps stimulate blood flow, strengthens the muscles within the digestive tract and helps control stress, particularly our stress hormone cortisol. Now that said, sometimes too high intensity of exercise on a regular basis can actually increase constipation (like a 2 hour lifting session), because the body’s cortisol is chronically elevated. But in general some light to moderate or short intensity exercise is good for proper bowel health, and for many other reasons like heart/lung health, and sleep.
Because if you aren’t sleeping at least 7-8 hours a night, your body isn’t going through the proper cleansing and detoxification cycles and that can interfere with bowel function. Ever been up all night and can’t go to the bathroom the next day? Yeah, your digestive system is stressed. This can also happen when you travel or change time zones/sleep schedules, but usually resolves once you are back on track.
Food sensitivities/allergies. This is another big reason for constipation that I see in my own practice quite frequently. Eating a food that you are sensitive to can cause inflammation and a histamine response in the body that can either back you up or make you go immediately. Typically, though, I see constipation occur with people who are eating foods like gluten, dairy, corn and soy, which they are sensitive to, among any other foods. Food sensitivities are fairly common these days because our bodies were not meant to tolerate gluten and dairy regularly, and a lot of those foods are genetically modified, meaning they are manmade in a lab to be weather and pest resistant. Not to mention, our food is sprayed with pesticides, herbicides and pumped full of antibiotics that create systemic toxicity in our bodies.
What happens when you eat a food that your body is sensitive or allergic to, is that the thickness of the mucosa gel layer in your rectum is significantly reduced, leading to increased anal resting pressure and constipation.
Remove the trigger food or foods and the mucosa layer is able to restore itself back to healthy levels.
Leaky gut syndrome. So many of my clients come to me with leaky gut and it’s severely impacting their ability to have proper bowel movements. When you have leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, there are cracks in your gut lining that allow food particles, toxins and bacteria to seep through into your bloodstream where they don’t belong. This sets off an immune response where your body attacks these “foreign invaders” causing inflammation, food sensitivities, constipation, mood issues, sleep issues, and so much more. Read my article on how to know if you have leaky gut for more information, as well as this one on my top 8 supplements to heal leaky gut.
Pathogens (parasites, bacterial overgrowth, dysbiosis). This is another big reason for constipation that goes virtually undetected for lots of people. If you’ve got bad gut bugs, then you have bowel irregularities. Sometimes that takes the form of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) with alternative diarrhea and constipation, or predominately one or the other. Regardless, microbial imbalances can seriously mess up your gut and until that is resolved, you won’t really make any true progress. That’s because good gut flora help regulate our GI tract function and bowels. Prebiotics are a crucial part of a healthy gut, but sometimes you’ve got to get rid of the overgrowth before adding prebiotics into the diet, such as with SIBO. Check out my article on what foods to eat with SIBO for more information here.
Also, certain medications like antidepressants, antacids, calcium or iron supplements, anticholinergics, anticonvulsants, and narcotics can cause constipation. Opioids deserve a mention here as they have been known to cause constipation, especially when used long term. This happens because they affect our central nervous system, and essentially slow down our digestive process, which leads to constipation.
If you are chronically constipated, then your body is not properly eliminating waste and toxins. What happens then is that those toxins are then reabsorbed by the body. This creates more systemic inflammation, and circulating toxins can cause a whole host of health issues and chronic illness. Not to mention, when you have sluggish bowels, this creates an environment for bad bacteria to flourish and can lead to bacterial overgrowth such as small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and dysbiosis, which simply means an imbalance between good and bad bacteria.
Other risks of chronic constipation include:
Now, if you have a more serious pathogenic infection or autoimmune condition like Crohn’s or Colitis, then you will likely need to work with a holistic practitioner to help create a custom healing plan for you. It’s quite likely that if you have SIBO, leaky gut, or another serious pathogenic infection, you must address that underlying issue before seeing any real improvements in constipation. I do specialize in gut health, so most of my clients are dealing with these issues. I typically run a stool test like the GI Map to get more targeted information on the exact microbial imbalances and then build a custom protocol from there.
However, in general these are some tips and tricks to get you going while you work on healing the root cause issues:
Try sitting down in a quiet place and practice this simple 4-7-8 breathing technique. Exhale out your old stale air. Then breath in deeply for 4 counts, hold that breath for 7 counts and exhale slowly for 8 counts. Repeat this 5 or more times, until you feel calm and relaxed.
To work on your vagal nerve tone, you can try some really easy (and fun) tricks at home, such as gargling, singing and humming. Cold water exposure on your face is another way to stimulate vagus nerve activity. Tapping, or emotional freedom technique (EFT) is also incredibly beneficial for reducing stress and stimulating the vagus nerve. You can watch my video tutorial on tapping here.
If you are looking for a passionate, experienced and knowledgeable holistic practitioner to help guide you through a gut healing protocol, I encourage you to schedule a free discovery call today, and check out my “work with me page” to see my services, access my pricing & packages and learn more about me.
I specialize in gut health and hormone balance because those are two areas where I have previously struggled for over seven years! I’ve suffered from leaky gut, SIBO, IBS, parasites, adrenal dysfunction, hormonal imbalances, and anxiety and depression so chances are, I know exactly what you are going through. And I can promise you this: you CAN find healing. You don’t have to suffer alone. All you need is someone on your side, looking out for your best interests. I’d love to be that person!