If you really think about it, one of the best indicators of how happy and healthy you feel probably depends on the quality and frequency of bowel movements. After all, it's kind of hard to feel your best when you're cramped up and constipated or dashing to the bathroom for another bout of diarrhea.
But for many of us, life's modern stressors, a less-than-stellar diet, and not drinking nearly enough water has made constipation (i.e., going less than once per day) the new "normal." And that's a problem for a variety of reasons—and particularly for women. That's because constipation can royally mess with your hormones, particularly estrogen, and, in turn, lead to a host of other annoying problems like headaches and acne.
Here, learn all about the constipation-hormone connection and what to do to get your body back into balance ASAP.
How constipation can throw your hormones out of whack.
First, a quick biology lesson: The liver is responsible for binding hormones by converting them into their "methylated" forms (i.e., by converting them from fat-soluble to water-soluble). Once this happens, the bound hormones are then transported into the gut, where they can be safely excreted, explains Wendie Trubow, M.D., functional medicine gynecologist.
But what happens when that excretion is delayed because you're constipated? "If your bowels aren't moving, your estrogen sticks around longer than it should and goes back into circulation in the body," says Jolene Brighten, NMD, women's hormone expert and author of Beyond the Pill. "You have to poop every day to get your estrogen out."
Additionally imbalances in gut flora can lead to increased production of beta-glucuronidase—an enzyme that essentially reactivates bound estrogen and other hormones by disconnecting them from their methyl group. When this happens, estrogen, which is no longer water-soluble, gets reabsorbed into the bloodstream. "Constipation exacerbates this process since the hormone is sitting in the stool for longer and has a greater chance of being separated from the methyl group," says Trubow.
Hormone-related health problems caused by constipation.
If you only experience constipation once in a while, it's no big deal, "but chronic constipation, over time, can lead to hormone imbalance since the hormone that's getting recycled into the body is more toxic than its original form," says Trubow.
So, what are some of the more immediate issues you might notice? Acne is a big one. "Poor metabolic waste elimination plus a hormone imbalance can wreak havoc on your skin," says Brighten. "If you aren't moving waste out through your bowels, your body can attempt to push some of it out through the skin." Other health problems caused by the accumulation of estrogen that can crop up pretty quickly include headaches, PMS, frequent periods, heavy periods, and hot flashes.
And over time, health risks start to get pretty serious. "Over the long term, there's potentially an increased risk for estrogen-dependent cancers since the normal excretion process isn't happening properly," says Trubow.
Practices that promote daily pooping—and balanced hormones.
Keeping your hormones in check and avoiding the problems above can be as simple as making a few dietary and lifestyle tweaks that promote regular pooping. And remember, "regular" means at least once and up to three times a day. Additionally, a healthy poop should not contain mucus, blood, or undigested food—so if any of those are present, schedule a visit with your doc. Now, on to some effective poop-promoting, hormone-balancing practices:
- Get regular exercise. All exercise, particularly cardiovascular exercise, can increase your metabolism, which increases intestinal motility (i.e., intestinal contractions that allow you to poop).
- Chill out while you eat. Being in a relaxed state while you're eating, and for about 30 minutes after you finish, is vital for healthy bowel movements, says Brighten. That means no walking and eating or running around the office between bites.
- Drink more water. "Not drinking enough water is one of the most common reasons I see as to why people don't poop regularly," says Brighten. How much should you aim for? One helpful formula is to convert your weight into kilograms, and that's about how many ounces of water you need at a baseline—not including exercise. So, a 150-pound person would need about 68 ounces (or 8.5 cups) of water per day, and more with exercise.
- Up your fiber intake. Ramping up your intake of nonstarchy vegetables and fruits is a good idea, and incorporating particularly high-fiber options like raspberries (which pack 8 grams per cup, or 32% of your recommended daily fiber intake). Aim for six to nine servings of vegetables daily to hit your fiber quota, suggests Brighten.
- Consider a liver-supporting supplement. Supplements that assist with liver function and management of overactive beta-glucuronidase include calcium D-glucarate, diindolylmethane (DIM), indole-3-carbinol, N-acetylcysteine (NAC), alpha-lipoic acid, and glutathione. "People shouldn't necessarily take all of those, though," says Trubow. "You should work with a provider first to get evaluated."
For more, check out our article on how to make yourself poop.
Hormone imbalances can also cause constipation (not just the other way around).
While it's less common for hormone imbalances to cause constipation, it can happen. "One of the most common hormone imbalances that leads to constipation is hypothyroidism or too little thyroid hormone," says Brighten. "Without adequate thyroid hormones, the bowels don't move." So, if chronic constipation is your issue, consider having a complete thyroid lab to evaluate your health, suggests Brighten. This includes TSH, free T4, free T3, anti-TPO, and anti-thyroglobulin antibodies.
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition. In addition to contributing to mindbodygreen, she has written for Women's Health, Prevention, and Health. She is also a certified holistic health coach through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. She has a passion for natural, toxin-free living, particularly when it comes to managing issues like anxiety and chronic Lyme disease (read about how she personally overcame Lyme disease here).