Constipation – how it affects overall health

Constipation affects around 80 million people a year, so it’s really common, and yet not something that we often talk about. It can affect our overall physical health, but also our mental health as we can get food fear and anxiety, and be worried as to what foods will cause the pain and distention. 

Officially, the medical world recognises constipation as having fewer than 3 bowel movements a week, for more than 3 months. However, this is not what we require for optimal health, and ideally we want to be having 1-3 bowel movements per day, so that we are effectively able to evacuate our metabolic waste and toxins. 

Why it’s more than just the physical pain

Constipation is not just an issue of the bloating, discomfort and pain that often accompany it, it’s actually having an impact on our overall health.

When we are not able to eliminate our metabolic waste,  toxins and waste products that the body wants to get rid of, end up in our body longer and this increases the chances of those toxins being reabsorbed back into the body. This then creates inflammation and affects the immune system that would need to mount an immune response. Both these reactions will have an impact on overall health in a systemic way and thereby increase risk for long term chronic disease, since inflammation is the driver behind most modern chronic disease.

So it’s really important that we treat the underlying cause of constipation, and not just think of it as an inconvenient and painful condition, but actually one that is impacting overall immunity and health. Simply taking a laxative to help, or increasing fibre, will certainly help with bowel movements, but they won’t address why the constipation is there in the first place. Additionally, taking laxatives long term will actually create a lazy bowel which means that it becomes reliant on the stimulation of laxatives in order to move. 

There are many potential causes for constipation, and we want to dig deeper to find an individual’s root cause. Some examples are

  • Not eating a fibre rich diet – we need the insoluble fibre from fruit and vegetables in order to help the stool form correctly. This type of fibre won’t be found in processed food, so eating a whole food diet will be really helpful.
  • Having a sluggish thyroid (hypothyroid) means that all our systems will be sluggish since we have thyroid receptors all over the body. Supporting thyroid health therefore may be a way to improve constipation. (see thyroid blog here)
  • Dehydration – not drinking enough water – is often an issue that contributes to constipation and is an easy one to correct. Aim for roughly 1.5 -2 litres per day. 
  • Magnesium deficiency is quite common and can also contribute to constipation. This is a calming mineral that aids peristalsis (the movement that allows the stool to pass). We can supplement with magnesium or take baths with Epsom salts, or even use a magnesium body cream to up our magnesium levels. Supplements, particularly magnesium citrate can cause diarrhoea which is why they are not always advised, but in this case it may be something to consider. Vitamin C can also be helpful, as well as certain oils like coconut and MCT oil which act as a lubricant. 
  • Gut health is really important to address with constipation. There is often dysbiosis (an imbalance of good to bad bacteria). There may also be an infection, yeast or Candida overgrowth, parasites in the gut which will affect bowel movements. Also there may be food sensitivities, inflammation, reduced gut immunity, SIBO (where the gut bacteria migrate to the small intestine rather than the large intestine), the presence of leaky gut, all of which will impact gut health, overall health, and constipation. All of these can be detected on a stool microbiome test which is an incredibly helpful insight into what is going on in the gut. (see here for more info)
  • And finally there may be physical reasons that are contributing to constipation such as slow gut motility, reduced function of the migrating motor complex or slow transit. Again these can be addressed with certain interventions such as prokinetics and other supplements and dietary and lifestyle changes, in a really targeted way, especially once the root cause is identified. 

Essentially we want to focus on a holistic approach that includes nutrition, stress management, sleep and of course exercise/movement as all of these will also impact constipation. Another tip is not to ignore the urge to have a bowel movement – ideally for no more than 15 minutes, and also try a toddler step to put your feet on while on the toilet – this places your knees above your hips, since our body has evolved to be in a squatting position when having bowel movements. Modern toilets don’t allow for this position to be achieved so if you are having difficulty this can make a big difference. 

It’s fair to say that we need to have healthy bowel movements in order to have good overall health,

so addressing the root cause, improving digestion, removing any parasites or bad bacteria, replacing good bacteria, working on the gut immunity, inflammation, digestive support – all of these will help resolve constipation, depending on what the root cause is, and in turn will improve overall health.