Common Causes of Constipation and Solutions to Help
By Noelle Patno, PhD
If you’re having trouble with that more substantive trip to the restroom, there may be some simple behavioral habits to implement to resolve your issues. Most of the popular press, common opinion, or typical Google searches may suggest that constipation is difficulty in producing stool, having infrequent stool, or having hard and small stool, caused by 1) dehydration, 2) lack of fiber in the diet, or 3) a sedentary lifestyle. However, there may be more lifestyle reasons for consideration when there is an interruption in the motility of the intestine.2 Let’s examine in more detail common causes of what we may consider mild and occasional constipation.
Common causes of constipation
- Dehydration. We all know we need water for daily life. It’s necessary for general health, especially when it’s hotter and as you perspire and lose more water. If you are dehydrated, the body may not have enough fluid for proper intestinal transit.
- Electrolyte imbalance. Minerals are critical for the muscular function of the intestine to contract and relax. Calcium aids in contraction, and magnesium aids in relaxation. The intestine may be more likely to constrict rather than relax if your diet contains an imbalance of these combinations, such as excessive dairy, almond, pistachio, broccoli, or green leafy vegetables. Yes, there is such a thing as too much superfood kale, which has more calcium than magnesium in it! However, there is more potassium than sodium in kale3 (calcium-rich diet) versus magnesium-rich foods (leafy greens like arugula, spinach, Swiss chard, seeds, tahini, summer squash, okra, salmon, cacao). Additionally, sodium versus potassium levels will affect hydration levels; a potassium deficiency and sodium-rich diets (processed foods, soups, sauces, soda, pickled and cured foods like hot dogs, jerky, and adding salt) may lead to dehydration.2
- Lack of fiber in the diet. Typically, people do not take in enough fiber, according to governmental guidelines and NHANES 2009-2010 data.4 The observation was that the average daily intake is 16 g/day, which is almost half the recommended intake.4 More than 70% of population do not consume vegetables or fruits, which are great sources of fiber, at the recommended dietary intake. Furthermore, the majority of people overconsume saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium,5 all of which may possibly contribute to imbalances in the overall digestive process. Fiber is known to add bulk to the intestinal contents,6 promoting flow through the intestine; the movement occurs from high- to low-pressure areas.
- Lack of exercise. In the U.S., approximately 80 percent of adults fail to meet recommended physical activity guidelines,5 which may be a common reason for constipation. Exercising promotes blood flow and overall activity in the body, placing further demands on energy expenditure; the additional movement can promote the activity of the intestine as well. Why would your body want to hold on to extra weight in the intestine if you’re moving? It’s just like having all that junk in the trunk of your car—you’ll move faster without it.
- Supplements and medications. Certain vitamins and minerals can impact bowel motility. For instance, iron supplementation can contribute to constipation, whereas concurrent intake of vitamin C intake may help with absorption of iron, thus minimizing its ability to cause constipation.2 Certain drugs can also cause constipation (check the labels of your medications or ask your doctor if you are taking medications that can cause constipation and what you can do to mitigate the side effects).
If you suffer from occasional or mild constipation, this list of contributing lifestyle factors might be worth a look. As always, you should discuss any concerns you may have with your healthcare practitioner.
- Haug TT et al. Are anxiety and depression related to gastrointestinal symptoms in the general population? Scand J Gastroenterol. 2002;37(3):294-298.
- Koff A. Nutrition Strategies for the Treatment of IBS and the Prevention of Digestive Complaints. In: Integrative Gastroenterology. Mullin G. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc; 2011.
- Basic Report on Nutrient data for Kale, raw, 11233. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Legacy April 2018 Software v.188.8.131.52 2018-07-24. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov. Accessed August 13, 2018.
- S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed August 10, 2018.
- Institute of Medicine. 2005. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
- Tungland BC, Meyer D. Nondigestible Oligo- and Polysaccharides (Dietary Fiber): Their Physiology and Role in Human Health and Food. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. 2002;1(3):90-109.
About Noelle Patno, PhD:
Noelle Patno, PhD, is the Nutritional Scientist for Digestive Health at Metagenics. After pursuing chemical engineering at Stanford and engineering at Abbott, she sought an education in preventive nutrition from a basic science perspective by pursuing her PhD in Molecular Metabolism and Nutrition from the University of Chicago. Her current role involves researching and developing probiotics, prebiotics and other nutritional solutions and programs for promoting digestive health and overall health.