The Unexpected Causes Of Your Constipation
Constipation is a huge problem for many people who often self-medicate with laxatives and harsh natural senna-based products. This is not ideal, as long-term laxative use can cause dependency, electrolyte imbalances, poor heart and colon health, severe dehydration, weakness, tremor, lazy or infected bowels, or damage to the kidneys and liver.
Most people avoid professional support because they are embarrassed or ashamed, but there really is no need because, guess what? You are not alone—in fact, there's a big tribe of constipated folk out there. I used to be one of them.
Pooping is part of our "manufacturing process." It's completely natural and highly essential. We instinctively know that we need to poop and feel uncomfortable when we don't go for days, but do we know WHY pooping regularly is important? Let me shed some light and hopefully extinguish any embarrassment as well.
What is constipation? It can be any or all of these:
- Incomplete emptying of the bowels. You may poop daily but you often feel dissatisfied, as if there is more that can be evacuated
- Hard, dry stools that need excessive strain to pass
- Infrequent or unsuccessful evacuation of the colon
- Loose stool may seep out around a hard impacted stool in a desperate attempt to get rid of waste
- Other digestive symptoms such as abdominal cramping, excessive wind, or bloating can be signs of constipation
Why is pooping is so important?
Pooping is our body's natural way of removing waste, toxins, and hormones. Waste is predominantly made up of water, bacteria, indigestible vegetable fiber, metabolic waste, and those things our body wants to get rid of such as medicine remains, cholesterol, and food colorants. The skin, kidneys, lymphatic system, lungs, and bronchioles are also elimination organs, but it is the bowel that is the most abused and neglected.
There is no "normal" poop pattern, only averages. Studies have shown that people poop anywhere between three times a day to three times1 a week. Many experience bowel movement irregularity, and women2 tend to have more sluggish bowels than men.
What happens when our bowels don't cooperate?
In a nutshell, think self-poisoning and inflammation.
We recycle our waste and hormone by-products, which leads to toxic buildup in the bowel, which can cause leaky gut. Constipation can also lead to the growth of dangerous pathogens such as parasites, bacteria, and fungus.
Toxicity leads to poor oxygen delivery in the body. Without oxygen, our energy levels are depleted. And an exhausted body does not remove toxins well.
Most of us know that a diet lacking fiber and ample water can contribute to constipation, but is it the only thing? Not a chance.
Below are three reasons people constipate that you might not have thought of.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
SIBO is when there is an abnormally large amount of bacteria in the small intestine. SIBO can harm the structure and function of the small intestine and can lead to poor digestion and absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. This then causes nutritional deficiencies, especially of B12, protein, and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and E.
SIBO can also cause leaky gut and, as a result, inflammation, allergies, sensitivities, and autoimmunity. Finally, SIBO burdens our detox pathways as bacteria produce ammonia that requires detoxification.
There are generally two types of SIBO, hydrogen- or methane-predominant. Constipation3 is often present with methane-predominant SIBO. The more methane you have, the slower your transit time is.
Methane may cause the constipation, or constipation may cause high methane levels because methanogens tend to like a slow transit environment, and when you're constipated, you might get an increase in methane-producing species. It's a vicious cycle.
A lower level of serotonin4 in the gut is often found in methane producers. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that supports intestinal movement (peristalsis), which helps push waste through the colon.
Hydrogen and methane breath testing is the most common method of testing SIBO. Your doctor or naturopath can refer you to get tested.
Poor thyroid function slows bowel transit time causing constipation, and constipation affects the way we remove hormones from the body. Inadequate removal can lead to elevated estrogen levels and thyroid hormone imbalance. Altered gastrointestinal movement as seen in hypothyroidism can cause SIBO. In fact up to 54 percent5 of those with hypothyroidism have SIBO. As we saw in the previous point, SIBO can affect our bowel movements and healthy, regular GI movements5 prevent bacteria overgrowth. The vicious cycle continues.
Stress and the Gut-Brain Axis (GBA)
The gut is closely connected to the brain. The two communicate constantly via bidirectional biochemical pathways6. This communication network includes the central nervous system (CNS), both brain and spinal cord, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which includes the parasympathetic and sympathetic arms, the enteric nervous system (ENS), the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis (the stress response), the vagus nerve6, and the gut microbiome.
Stress is a broad term that can be acute or chronic and generally means a threat to our homeostasis. Stress can disrupt the health of our gut by altering gut motility, gastric secretion, intestinal quality, permeability, visceral sensitivity, and mucosal blood flow.
The intestinal mucosa is infiltrated by nerve fibers and neuron cell bodies, which is why it's termed the gut-brain. The "gut-brain" is influenced by signals from the brain, which makes the gut a fundamental part of the nervous system. This means the brain can easily affect gut function.
Not only does stress affect the physiological function of the gut, it can also change the composition7 of the gut microbiome. Studies have shown that normal transit time in the small intestine slows due to psychological stress8, which can lead to bacterial overgrowth and a weakened gut barrier.
Chronic stress also puts us at risk of developing SIBO and leaky gut syndrome.
Acute stress in particular, otherwise known as fight or flight, is when stress hormones are released and energy stores are made available for the body's immediate use (survival). Energy is diverted to the tissues that need it most during times of stress, such as skeletal muscles and the brain9 and away from the digestive system, which takes a lot of energy to run. When blood flow is diverted from the digestive system, nutrient absorption and waste formation slows, which causes bloating and constipation.
Not to mention that when we're stressed we often make poor dietary choices10 and our breath becomes short, choppy, and labored, which does nothing for the movement of your bowels.
Interesting fact: Anxiety and mood disorders are seen more in those who are constipated11.
Now that you understand the big impact that irregular bowel movements have on health, will you let your embarrassment and shame stop you from exploring solutions?
Remember, we all poop; it's a natural bodily function, and most of us experience snags in regularity at different times in our lives. Sometimes constipation can be resolved quickly, while at other times further investigation and a long-term, repair approach is needed.
Learn ways to get the bowels moving in "13 Tricks To Have A Great Poop, Every Time."
Lynda Griparic is a naturopath, nutritionist, writer, and speaker living in New South Wales, Australia, with over 14 years of experience in the health industry. She specializes in gut health and weight loss, and has an advanced diploma in naturopathy, nutrition, and massage from Nature Care College.
Founder of the podcast Love & Guts, Griparic has extensive experience running healthy, effective, and sustainable weight loss programs, by investigating and treating the underlying causes of weight gain, metabolic problems, and gut disturbance.