Almost everybody experiences constipation at some point in their lives – bowel movements that become less frequent and more difficult to pass. It is a very common disorder of the digestive tract which can affect anybody, but it is most common amongst women (particularly during pregnancy), the elderly and young children.
Although common, it is important not to ignore constipation. Even if there is no serious underlying cause (which is most often the case), digestive regularity is an essential component of good health – not least because it is the way in which toxins and waste-matter are eliminated from the body, which would otherwise be harmful if allowed to remain.
It is therefore important to understand what is upsetting your natural rhythm and address that promptly, particularly in cases of long-term or ‘chronic’ constipation.
Am I constipated? As constipation is usually a symptom of one of any number of other underlying issues or factors, the presentation can vary from person to person – particularly given that bowel movement patterns can themselves range quite significantly between individuals.
However, it is worth noting that a healthy colon will rid the body of waste as often as 2 – 3 times per day, depending on how much has been eaten. So, if you are experiencing a bowel motion less than 5 times per week, it is likely that you are constipated. Of course, you will know your own body and what is ‘normal’ for you. There is no magic number, but regularity is key.
Unsurprisingly, constipation is not a topic that people are keen to discuss openly, but understanding the potential causes of this unpleasant, frustrating, unhealthy and often uncomfortable condition can help to answer the question “why do I have constipation”. If you have any concerns, you should always consult your doctor.
What happens when I am constipated? The process of digestion is complex, involving a number of different organs, organisms and chemicals in the body, including digestive enzymes, friendly bacteria, stomach acid and bile.
The breakdown of food into its constituent parts (so that we can absorb its nutrients) and the eventual elimination of the remaining fluid, waste and toxins through a healthy colon and rectum, can take anywhere between 18 and 24 hours. The form of this waste-matter or ‘stool’ (i.e. whether it’s hard or soft), is determined not only by diet, but also by the pace at which stool moves through the colon – a process known as peristalsis.
If the colon absorbs too much water from the waste or the muscle contractions are too slow (a sluggish bowel), stool can get hard and dry. And if it’s too difficult to expel, constipation can result.
Whatever the reason for the back-up, if waste remains in the colon for longer than is desirable, it will continue to putrefy and high levels of toxins can be re-absorbed into the bloodstream (referred to as self-poisoning). Where poor diet is a factor in the constipation, there is also likely to be partially digested food, resulting in fermentation and increased levels of harmful bacteria and parasites in the gut too. So, with this in mind, it is now clear why it is important to address constipation promptly. It is actually one of the chief causes of many diseases, as toxins that are carried in the bloodstream to other parts of the body can not only have a detrimental effect on the immune system, but can also result in weakening of the internal organs and clogging of the entire lymphatic system.
Some common causes of constipation: As already mentioned, constipation is a common symptom of a wide range of other internal conditions and external factors. However, some of the more common causes include:
- underlying digestive system disorders (such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Candida albicans, ‘leaky gut’ syndrome, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease etc)
- an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in the gut
- food intolerance or allergy
- change in routine (such as travel)
- medication use (particularly antibiotics, which destroy both good and bad bacteria in the gut)
- lack of exercise
- stress (which can inhibit the secretion of digestive enzymes)
- old age (when digestive enzyme reserves can become depleted)
- and pregnancy.
However, poor diet is by far the most common cause – this is logical when you consider that the digestive tract is where your body receives food, absorbs nutrients and eliminates waste. Most vulnerable are those with diets high in processed foods, saturated fats, sugar, dairy, alcohol and caffeine, but low in natural whole foods (like fruit and vegetables, which are rich in dietary fibre).
In relatively rare cases, constipation can be a symptom of a serious underlying illness. It is therefore important to consult your doctor if you have any concerns or if symptoms persist.
How to help avoid constipation: Every day you make choices about what to eat, what to drink, how active to be and how to live your life. Prevention is always better than cure, and you can help to ensure healthy bowel function and reduce the toxic load on your body by making these choices smart ones. Most people suffering with constipation find that by simply altering their lifestyle they can significantly improve their regularity or eliminate the problem completely. Carefully shaping your diet is one of the easiest ways to influence your digestive process:
- Try to eat food as close to its natural state as possible, rather than foods that have been heavily refined and processed.
- Organic and seasonal fruit and vegetables are preferable, not least because they are naturally rich in quality dietary fibre, as well as a broad spectrum of other digestion-friendly, cleansing and protective nutrients, including enzymes and amino acids.
- Try to include more probiotic foods in your diet, to support your levels of friendly bacteria. For instance, fermented foods like kefir, miso, tempeh and sauerkraut.
- You may also choose to support your diet and digestive health with high-quality supplements, such as plant digestive enzymes, multi-strain probiotics and dietary fibre.
If you regularly suffer with constipation, up your intake of fibre gradually in order to promote softer, bulkier stools. Good sources of soluble fibre (which dissolves in water to form a thick gummy solution that is ideal for binding with toxins in the gut) include: seaweed, oats, rice, fruit pectin, psyllium and legumes. Good sources of insoluble fibre (which adds to the weight, bulk and softness of stools) include whole grains, fruit and vegetables.
Good hydration is an essential part of maintaining a healthy colon and digestive regularity. Most notably, it will help to ensure that the stool is soft and can pass more easily. When upping your fibre intake, be sure to also up your water intake proportionally (otherwise you could just end up making constipation worse). 6 – 8 glasses of filtered water per day should be sufficient.
Also try to stay active. Exercise is an easy way to stimulate peristalsis and get things moving in your gut!
And finally, why not give your system a ‘spring clean’ every now and again? Almost all natural health therapies used down the ages recognise the value of cleansing the system on a regular basis, starting with the colon – particularly where there is a back-up in the system. Colon cleansing and colonics are great ways to rid the body of any accumulated waste and toxins, which can contribute to constipation and ill-health. Consider trying colon cleansing supplements, home enemas and colonic irrigation.