What happens behind the bathroom door isn’t something most people like to think about, let alone discuss. You just want to get in, do your thing, and get out. For the estimated 63 million Americans suffering from chronic constipation, though, their bowel movements are always on their mind and greatly affect daily life. After all, being backed up can cause major stomachaches, back pain, fatigue, and even vomiting in severe cases. To avoid personal plumbing problems, it’s important to know how stool is formed and understand why it can potentially clog up a person’s pipes (AKA their intestines).
How Stool Is Formed
Passing a bowl movement is the final (and very important) step in the digestive process. It’s a sign that your body has gotten rid of the food waste and other toxic particles it needed to in order to function properly.
For your body to form stool, your entire digestive system needs to work together. You see, digestion starts in your mouth the moment you begin chewing food. The enzymes in your saliva work to break down food as it moves from the mouth, down the esophagus, and into the stomach. There, gastric juices continue to break down the food. As it moves through your small and large intestines, nutrients are extracted by the body to help your various systems function. The waste substance that remains in your intestines is stool.
If a person’s digestive system is working the way it was designed to, they will pass a bowel movement every day without much straining or discomfort. Doctors say healthy individuals can pass anywhere from one to three bowel movements a day, and it can vary from day-to-day. A person is considered constipated if they have three or fewer bowel movements per week.
Constipation is a common condition and is often caused by something minor — a lifestyle factor that you can easily change. Other times, the underlying cause of constipation is more complicated. Below, I have outlined the top 12 causes of constipation. Some of these causes may sound familiar, while others may come as a surprise to you.
We’ve all heard the saying before: You should drink eight glasses of water a day. Some doctors even recommend more than that depending on your lifestyle, body size, and general health. The fact is, staying hydrated helps to control your body’s temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism, and digestive health.
Why does hydration aid digestion?
Well, drinking adequate amounts of water keeps your intestines smooth and flexible. It also helps keep the food you eat moving through your intestines and ultimately allows waste to exit the body without much straining or discomfort. On the flip side, if your body doesn’t have enough water, a stool becomes hard and dry. That makes it extremely difficult to pass.
If you are someone who struggles to down enough liquid throughout the day, keep in mind that drinking glass after glass of water isn’t the only way to hydrate. According to the Institute of Medicine, about 80 percent of the water you consume comes from beverages, while the remaining 20 percent actually comes from food. That’s right … along with drinking water, you can also boost your H2O consumption from the foods you eat. So make sure to fill your diet with foods like cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and other juicy fruits that have a high water content.
2) Low-Fiber / High-Sugar Diet
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but your bowel movements are a direct reflection of your diet. While most people know they should be eating enough fiber in their diet (since fiber promotes soft and bulky stool), the average American’s diet contains less than half the recommended amount.
The daily recommended intake of fiber is somewhere between 20 to 35 grams per day, depending on your age and gender. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is filled with processed foods that are high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and way too much sodium. Those processed foods are also extremely low in fiber. For this reason, researchers say the average American consumes a mere 14 grams per day. Keep in mind, that’s the average, so many people eat even less than that!
The best way to add fiber to your diet is to fill your plate with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Please note, though, when you increase your fiber intake it’s extremely important to drink enough water. If you don’t stay properly hydrated, the fiber will act as a sponge and absorb the surrounding liquids in your body. This can lead to harder and dryer stools. As you read just a few moments ago, dry stool is hard to pass and can lead to constipation (which is exactly what you don’t want). So when you begin adding more fiber to your diet, do so gradually. This will help your body gets used to the added amounts of fiber.
3) Lack of Exercise
One of the reasons senior citizens are considered high risk for constipation is because of their more sedentary lifestyle. You may not even realize it, but when you exercise you’re not only working your leg and arm muscles. Inside your intestines, there is also a layer of muscle that is constantly contracting to help food waste pass. If you aren’t getting enough physical activity, though, your intestinal muscles may become too relaxed. This makes it extremely difficult for food to move through the digestive tract and ultimately exit the body.
Don’t worry — you don’t have to sign up for a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class in order to promote healthy bowel movements. Rather, doing some light yoga stretches every day can make a huge difference. All of the twisting and turning involved in yoga helps to massage the digestive organs and muscles, promoting a better bathroom experience.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that’s located in your neck and releases hormones that control your metabolism. One of the main things people think about when they hear someone has a sluggish/underactive thyroid is weight gain. However, hypothyroidism doesn’t only affect weight. When your thyroid is less active, so are the muscles in your intestinal tract. This causes stool to travel through the colon at a slower pace. The longer it takes a stool to pass, the more water gets drained from it. This leaves the stool dry and hard, making it tougher to pass.
Hypothyroidism affects approximately three million Americans, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s more common in the elder population and women are five to eight times more likely than men to have thyroid problems. If you suspect something is wrong with your thyroid, schedule an appointment with your doctor. There’s a simple blood test that can diagnose the condition and your doctor can talk to you about proper treatment.
5) Poor Gut Health
The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Now, centuries later, it turns out Hippocrates was right. You see, our gut is loaded with bacteria. In fact, researchers estimate that we have 100 trillion bacteria living inside of us. Yes, that’s trillion with a “t.” Out of the 100 trillion bacteria inside of us, there are hundreds of different species. This diverse bacteria is a delicate ecosystem commonly referred to as the microbiome. It’s that microbiome that helps keep us strong and healthy.
In order for our bodies to function properly, doctors say we should have about 80% good bacteria and 20% bad bacteria. Unfortunately, poor diet, frequent antibiotic use, and living a high-stress lifestyle are all things that kill our good gut bacteria. For people with digestive issues, doctors have found unbalanced gut bacteria plays a large role. Proof of that lies in fecal transplants. A fecal transplant is a procedure where stool is taken from a healthy donor and placed into an ill patient’s colon. According to a study published in the journal of Gastroenterology Hepatology, fecal transplants have a 93 percent success rate in curing and/or healing digestive issues.
To help improve your gut health today, start taking a daily probiotic supplement and introduce probiotic foods into your diet. Some healthy probiotic foods include:
- Live-cultured yogurt
- Miso (miso soup)
- Apple Cider Vinegar
Learn a little more about probiotics and probiotic foods in this funny yet informative video by SciShow:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common and uncomfortable condition that affects the large intestine. Between 25-45 million people in the United States suffer from IBS. Symptoms include cramps, bloating, gas, mucus in stool, diarrhea, and constipation. With IBS, spasms of the colon can affect how stool moves through the digestive tract, resulting in irregular bowel movements.
While the cause of IBS isn’t well understood, some sufferers are able to control their symptoms through a healthy diet, lifestyle changes, and keeping stress levels at bay. Other people with more severe IBS, though, need to go on medication to control their symptoms. If you think you suffer from IBS, talk to your doctor.
7) Laxative Abuse
When many people are hit with constipation, they turn to laxatives for fast relief. There are various types of laxatives. One of the most popular is stimulants, which increase a stool’s hydration and stimulate the intestinal muscles to contract. There are also fast-acting enemas, which work by drawing fluid into the intestines to help stool pass more easily. Additionally, there are lubricant laxatives, which use mineral oils to coat the lining of the intestinal wall and stops stool from drying out.
Regardless of type, laxatives should never become a go-to source for constipation relief. If used for a long period of time, your body can actually become dependent on them. That means your digestive system won’t work properly without them.
Rather than loading up on laxatives, focus on drinking more liquids, eating a well-balanced diet, and reducing the amount of stress in your life.
8) Certain Medications
Constipation is just one of many side effects of certain prescription medications. Some of the most common drugs that are linked to constipation include antidepressants, drugs to treat schizophrenia or hallucinations, drugs that treat seizure disorders, drugs that help control Parkinson’s disease, pain-killers (specifically narcotics), blood pressure medications, and antacids.
If you recently started a new medication and notice a slow down in your digestive habits, talk to your doctor.
Certain supplements can contribute to constipation. The two most common include calcium and iron. If your doctor has put you on a calcium or iron supplement and you are experiencing constipation, don’t stop taking it. Rather, consult with your physician first for his/her advice.
Depression takes a huge toll on the body in more ways than one. Today, we are going to focus on its impact on digestion. In general, when someone is in a state of depression, their body slows down. This greatly affects the digestive system. As you read earlier, slower digestion means a stool sits inside the intestines for a longer period of time and can dry out. Additionally, when someone is depressed, they are typically moving less and eating more not-so-good-for-you foods. That combination is a digestive nightmare.
Since antidepressant medications can also contribute to constipation, it’s best to beat the slump naturally. Some natural stress/anxiety/ and depression relievers include:
- Go for a walk outdoors
- Take a relaxing detox bath
- Hang out with friends that make you laugh
During pregnancy, a woman’s body goes through a lot of changes. While most people focus on the growing waistline, one way you may not have expected pregnancy to impact the body is digestive health.
Pregnancy can lead to constipation for a few reasons. First of all, during pregnancy, the hormone progesterone releases and relaxes the smooth muscles in the bowel. This causes the digestive system to slow down. Additionally, the weight of the developing baby normally sits on the intestines and can slow the movement of stool through the digestive tract.
If you are pregnant, it’s extremely important to stay hydrated. This will help keep your stool moist, meaning it will have an easier time traveling through your intestines and exiting your body. It’s also a good idea to stay active during pregnancy. While you don’t want to push yourself past your limit, there are some great prenatal yoga routines that can help keep things moving.
12) Ignoring the Urge To Go
As silly as this sounds, one of the most common causes of constipation is simply ignoring the urge to go. Whether it’s because you don’t have access to a bathroom or you’re embarrassed to go “number two” around a particular person, holding it in for too long can lead to constipation problems. Again, that’s because the longer a stool sits in the colon, the more water gets drained and the harder it is to have a bowel movement.