Digestion problems are not something we are keen to discuss. This subject is too private and we feel embarrassed to bring it up with friends or even family. Yet as many as one in ten people suffer from chronic constipation. As many as one in three go through constipation at some point of their life. Women are affected more often than men for the reasons that we will discuss below. There is no doubt, however, that there is not enough support available for constipation sufferers.
If you go to your GP you are highly unlikely to get a referral to a nutritionist. You might get medication that will manage the symptoms rather than look into how to avoid having problems in the first place. If you want to be constipation free long term, this guide will give you information and ideas on where to start.
What is Constipation
Constipation is a common condition that can vary in severity and in level of discomfort it causes. If your stools are not regular and are less often than every two-three days and cause you discomfort or pain, it means your digestive system is not working the way it should.
For some people this happens as a one off, for the others it becomes a debilitating condition that affects their lifestyle.
What Causes Constipation
There is not one reason that is the cause of constipation for everyone. The first thing to do is to see your GP to rule out any underlined conditions. If you are otherwise fit and healthy, there is a number of reasons your digestion might be slow.
Lifestyle and food choices
Most of us are guilty of making the wrong food choices, not being active enough and being stressed too often.
Unfortunately not all of these factors are within our control. It is worth however making a mental note that even small improvements can sometimes make a difference. There might be occasions when you can make a conscious effort to stop yourself from getting stressed. You might be able to walk to the shops at weekends or during your lunch break. Order Hello Fresh instead of a takeaway to cut back on the processed foods. None of this is likely to make an obvious difference on day 1. Over time, however, your body will thank you with improved energy levels, better sleep and happier mood.
Hormone levels during your monthly cycle
Hormone levels change drastically during your monthly menstrual cycle. Many women suffer from constipation just before their period. They might notice that their digestion goes back to normal as soon as the period starts. The reason for that is levels of progesterone start to rise after the ovulation in the luteal phase (days 14-28). Progesterone is known as a relaxing hormone. Its main function is to prepare the uterine lining in case there is a pregnancy. Unfortunately it affects the bowel too, making the bowel movement more sluggish and causing constipation. If the pregnancy does not happen, progesterone levels begin to fall and the problem goes away.
Constipation in pregnancy
Constipation is a common problem in pregnancy for a number of reasons.
Activity Levels. Many women struggle to keep up their regular activity levels during pregnancy. Some feel very tired during the 1st trimester, the others find it difficult to move as much as before during the 2nd and 3rd trimester.
Progesterone Increase. When a pregnancy happens, progesterone levels increase instead of dropping as they would during a regular cycle. This relaxes the smooth muscles in the whole body, making digestion slower.
Expanding Uterus. As the pregnancy progresses and the uterus expands, intestines move from their normal position. This also slows down digestion and makes passing the food all the way through the intestines harder.
Supplements. Vitamins and supplements are usually recommended during pregnancy and are sometimes essential for the baby’s development and the mother’s wellbeing. Unfortunately constipation is one of the common side effects of taking supplements that contain iron and calcium. Both are commonly prescribed during pregnancy.
It is particularly important to support your digestive system during pregnancy. Chronic constipation and straining during pregnancy might lead to such problems as haemorrhoids.
Hormone imbalance can happen at any age. Lowered levels of oestrogen, prolactin and serotonin can lead to constipation. Serotonin deserves particular attention as its levels have an overall effect on one’s wellbeing. Insufficient serotonin production can lead to problems with digestion as well as depression and lack of energy.
Women going through menopause often find their digestion slows down. This is caused by oestrogen levels reducing and not being sufficient to counteract the effects of progesterone.
How to Stop Constipation
Stopping constipation is different from just relieving it. As with most things, there is no quick solution to a long term problem. If you want to forget about constipation forever, you will have to introduce changes to your diet and lifestyle. Not all of these changes will work for everyone. You might have to go through a few suggestions below until you find something that will make a difference. Think of what difference not having constipation will make to your life. Start with just one small change. Try it for a few weeks to see the full effect. Most suggestions below will make you feel better even if they do not sort out the main problem.
Go gluten free for 2-4 weeks.
Many people have food intolerances that they are not aware of. They put down such symptoms as lack of energy, problems with digestion and allergies to stress. Often, however, their wellbeing can be improved by simply avoiding certain foods.
There are a few ways of finding out if you are gluten intolerant.
A blood test. This is the most common method. You are likely to have to go private for this as the NHS will not cover it unless your symptoms are severe.
A hair test. This method is unconventional and is not backed up by the medical professionals. It is however, painless, can be done for adults or children of any age and is available to order online. Some people swear by the results and recommend it highly. If you can afford to pay £50-£60 it might be a useful exercise as it will alert you to any foods that you might want to avoid.
Exclusion test. This simply involves excluding gluten from your diet and monitoring the effect that has on your body. If you are intolerant to gluten, you should see a marked difference in your digestion in as little as a few days.
Include probiotics in your diet.
Probiotics are the good bacteria in your gut that promotes digestion and strengthens your immune system. When the balance of good and bad bacteria is affected by stress, illness or medication, your body loses its natural ability to perform the way it should. The digestion slows down. You cannot fight off infections effectively and end up having one cold after another.
There is a number of ways you could introduce probiotics to your daily menu.
This is a very easy option for those who are always on the go. Just take one or two capsules a day before your meal, no need to refrigerate it or mix it with anything. There are a few great options available online and in health shops.
Bio-Kult comes highly recommended by many IBS and other digestive disorders sufferers. There are hundreds of positive reviews on Amazon, including mine. Its formula has been scientifically developed to withstand the high acidity in the stomach. This means the probiotics reach the lower parts of your intestines too. It is suitable to be taken by any age group, alongside any other medication and when following a healthy diet.
Natural probiotic foods
This is what can make a huge difference. There are a few foods that contain so much probiotic that they can relieve constipation fast as well as prevent it from happening in the first place.
The most effective probiotic is Kefir. Read my more detailed post on benefits of Kefir that I wrote a while ago. If you are severely constipated drink two or three glasses of kefir in one go. You will be amazed how fast and effective it is for relieving constipation.
Have kefir smoothies for breakfast every day for long lasting health benefits. They are filling and healthy. Unlike some other foods that are recommended for constipation relief, kefir will not make you feel bloated and will not cause diarrhoea. It restores the good bacteria in your gut, making your digestive system work the way it should.
Some of the other natural probiotics are sauerkraut and miso soup. Whilst also excellent for you, I find them harder to include in my regular diet. I do, however, try my best to serve sauerkraut as a salad or in its natural form when I can. I also use miso paste for soups and marinades.
Manage your diet
This includes introducing more fiber into your diet and drinking more water. It also means you have to be aware of what foods cause constipation and what foods can relieve it. Foods like rice and bananas are healthy, but they are known for their binding properties and are recommended for diarrhoea sufferers. Prunes and apricots on another hand can help relieve constipation.
Foods that cause constipation – rice; bread products made from white flour to include cereal, bread, cakes, biscuits and crackers; low fiber vegetables to include potatoes; bananas.
Foods that relieve constipation – high fiber vegetables, fruit, dried fruit, especially prunes
Other small changes
• Some people find it helps them to eat at the same time every day. This hopefully eventually leads to their stools becoming more regular.
• Place a small footstool or box in front of your toilet. Placing your feet on the stool will change your position to a squat-like one, relaxing your colon.
• Take up yoga. You don’t need to go to the gym, a dvd in the comfort of your own home will work just as well. If your problems are stress inflicted, yoga is an excellent way to relax the body and mind and improve digestion.