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7 Causes of Constipation Explained by a Doctor

The Cabinet — 07.10.24

An image of Dr. Georgia Close

Constipation can be a real pain in the gut, and at Hilma, we believe in getting to the root of the problem with natural solutions. While it's a topic that many might shy away from, understanding what causes this common digestive issue is the first step towards relief. 

From the foods we eat to the rhythm of our daily lives, everything plays a part. Let's unpack the mysteries behind constipation, exploring how simple changes and the right support can make all the difference in improving your digestive health.

What Is Constipation?

Constipation is a common digestive issue where individuals experience difficulty in emptying their bowels, often characterized by infrequent or hard stools. This condition primarily occurs when the movement of waste through the large intestine is slower than usual, causing the stool to become dry and lumpy as the intestine absorbs water from it. As a result, passing stool can be painfully slow and require straining.

The difference between constipated and regular. 

Regular, soft but formed stools are a sign of adequate fluid and fiber intake and possibly a beneficial gut microbiome. While constipation is a sign of dietary factors and other poor risk factors, it, in itself, can lead to excess activity of microbes (fermentation) as well as not efficiently eliminating toxins and creating an opportunity for reabsorption. 

It can be a manifestation of suboptimal gut health (including a lack of a diverse array of beneficial gut flora species). Constipation can be due to a number of dietary factors, and of course, can cause discomfort.

There is no hard and fast rule as to how often or frequently someone should have a bowel movement. Everyone’s colonic motility is different. For some patients, that may mean a bowel movement two to even four times a day, other patients may be five times a week. 

The diagnosis of constipation is made when a patient reports hard, and/or infrequent stools. There is great variability in colonic motility; therefore if a patient is having a substantial formed bowel movement without straining, bloating, or abdominal pain, the frequency is less consequential.

So, What Causes Constipation?

Now that you're familiar with what constipation is, you might be wondering what triggers this uncomfortable condition. While the causes can be as varied as the individuals affected, several key factors commonly disrupt normal bowel movements.

1. Dietary Factors

One of the most common causes of constipation is a diet lacking enough fiber. High-fiber foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, and prunes, help to bulk up and soften stool, making it easier to pass. Conversely, a diet high in processed foods and low in natural, fibrous foods can lead to harder, drier stools that are difficult to eliminate.

2. Fluid Intake

Inadequate hydration can also lead to constipation. Without enough water, the colon absorbs more water from waste, resulting in harder and more compact stools. Ensuring a proper intake of fluids, particularly water, can help maintain bowel health and regularity.

3. Physical Activity

A lack of physical activity is another significant contributor to constipation. Regular exercise helps stimulate intestinal activity, which aids in the efficient movement of stools through the colon. Sedentary lifestyles, on the other hand, can slow down this process, leading to constipation.

4. Medical Conditions

Various health conditions can influence bowel function, leading to constipation. These include neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, which affect the muscles in the digestive tract. Other conditions like hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can also cause constipation as a side effect.

5. Medications

Certain medications can cause constipation as a side effect. These include strong pain relievers like opioids, antidepressants, antacids that contain aluminum or calcium, calcium channel blockers used to treat high blood pressure, and some diuretics. Always consult with a healthcare professional if you suspect your medication is affecting your bowel movements.

6. Aging

As people age, their metabolism slows down, which can affect the digestive system’s efficiency. Additionally, older adults are more likely to be taking multiple medications that can contribute to constipation.

7. Psychological Factors

Stress and changes in routine can also impact bowel regularity. The gut is highly responsive to psychological stress, and emotional disturbances can lead to changes in gastrointestinal function, including an increased risk of constipation.

What Are the Signs You Might Be Constipated?

Think you're dealing with constipation? While we've touched on regularity, that's just one piece of the puzzle. There are several other indicators that can suggest you're experiencing this common but uncomfortable condition. 

Recognizing these signs is key to understanding your body’s signals and determining when it might be time to adopt some changes or seek help.

Difficulty Passing Stools

The most obvious sign of constipation is the struggle to pass stools. If you find yourself straining or spending long periods in the bathroom trying to have a bowel movement, it's likely a sign of constipation.

Hard or Lumpy Stools

One of the classic characteristics of constipation is hard or lumpy stools. These types of stools, which may feel dry or difficult to pass, are often a result of the colon absorbing too much water from the waste, which can happen when bowel movements are infrequent.

Less Frequent Bowel Movements

While there's a wide range in the normal frequency of bowel movements, a significant drop in your usual pattern — such as going from daily movements to only a few times a week — can indicate constipation.

Feeling of Incomplete Evacuation

After a bowel movement, if you consistently feel like you haven’t completely emptied your bowels, this sensation can also be a sign of constipation. It can lead to discomfort and a bloated feeling.

Abdominal Discomfort

Constipation can cause noticeable discomfort in the form of abdominal cramps or bloating. This discomfort often results from intestinal gas trapped behind compacted stool, which can also make your abdomen feel full or swollen.

Changes in Appearance of Stools

Beyond hardness and lumpiness, if your stools appear unusually narrow or take on a different color (such as being darker than usual), it might be due to constipation affecting your bowel's functioning.

How Can You Support Healthy Bowel Movements?

If the signs are pointing to constipation, don't panic. There are a number of things you can do to alleviate constipation, maintain healthy bowel movements, and improve your overall gut health.

Follow a Consistent Eating Schedule

Maintaining a regular eating schedule can help your digestive system stay routine and predictable. By eating your meals and snacks around the same time every day, you can help train your body to have regular bowel movements.

Incorporate Probiotics & Fiber Supplements

Maintaining a healthy balance of gut flora is essential for regular bowel movements. Probiotics introduce beneficial bacteria into your digestive system, which can help enhance gut health and alleviate constipation. 

Our Daily Pre + Probiotic + Herbs not only provides these beneficial bacteria but also includes prebiotics and soothing herbs to optimize your digestive wellness, making it a comprehensive solution for maintaining bowel regularity.

Natural fiber supplements are another way to support healthy bowel function and soothe bloating. Certain types of fiber, like psyllium and chicory, found in our Fiber Gummies, act as prebiotics by feeding beneficial gut bacteria.

Limit Intake of Constipating Foods

Certain foods can contribute to constipation. While everyone is different, some common culprits include dairy products, high-fat foods, and sweets. Additionally, foods and drinks containing caffeine may dehydrate you, and alcohol can slow digestion.

Magnesium Citrate for Evening Relief

Magnesium citrate is a gentle, effective remedy that can help draw water into the intestines, easing the passage of stools. Taking a magnesium supplement like our Gentle Bowel Movement Support before bed can help relax your bowel muscles overnight, promoting a smooth experience in the morning without the harsh effects associated with stimulant laxatives.

Practice Deep Breathing

Believe it or not, deep, mindful breathing can assist with improving bowel regularity. Deep breathing can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can in turn promote peristalsis — the series of muscle contractions that move food through the digestive tract. 

Setting aside a few minutes each day for deep breathing exercises could potentially assist in maintaining regular bowel movements.

Don't Ignore the Urge To Go

When you feel the urge to have a bowel movement, don’t ignore it. The longer you hold in stool, the more the colon will absorb the water from it, making it harder and more difficult to pass. Responding to your body's natural urges in a timely manner can help prevent constipation and promote regularity.

When Should You Seek Medical Attention for Constipation?

While occasional constipation is common and usually not a cause for alarm, there are times when it's wise to seek medical attention. If you're experiencing symptoms of constipation that persist despite making lifestyle and dietary changes, it might be an indicator of chronic constipation. 

This is especially important if you notice more severe symptoms such as significant discomfort in the rectum, signs of a blockage like persistent pain, change in color, or if there's blood in your stool, which could be a sign of anal fissures or other complications.

Additionally, if constipation is accompanied by unexplained weight loss, severe pain, or if you've tried over-the-counter remedies without relief, these could be signs that something more serious is at play. Consulting with a healthcare professional can help determine if there's an underlying condition contributing to your symptoms and guide you toward the right treatment to get your digestive health back on track. 

Remember, it's always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to your health.

This information is for educational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult a physician before treating any disorder.


Surprising findings about metabolism and age | Harvard Health

Constipation: Symptoms & Causes | Cleveland Clinic

Common causes of constipation | Harvard Health

Constipation - Health Encyclopedia | University of Rochester Medical Center

Diaphragmatic Breathing for GI Patients | University of Michigan Health

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