It’s not exactly dinner conversation, but constipation is something that you and I should really talk about.
After all, 63 million Americans report having sluggish bowels. So chances are that you - or somebody you know and care about - may be having problems in the poop department!
Furthermore, constipation isn’t merely a painful inconvenience. It can impact many areas of your health and wellbeing, sometimes in very surprising ways.
Find out five of the top, unexpected side effects of constipation, and how you can take action today to get your bowels back in good working order!
Firstly, What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of Constipation?
There is a wide variation in what is considered to be ‘normal’ in terms of bowel habits.
As a very general guideline, constipation is classified as having less than three bowel movements per week. Other symptoms can include:
- Straining to pass a bowel movement,
- Feelings of incomplete defecation (i.e. feeling like you may need to go a bit more, even once you’ve finished),
- Having small, dry and/or hard stools,
- Experiencing a feeling of ‘fullness’ in your rectum.
(If you notice any of the above symptoms, or a change from your usual bowel habits, it’s always best to get this checked out.)
This is obviously an unpleasant situation to deal with in the bathroom, but did you know that constipation could be affecting your life and health in other ways as well?
1. Constipation Can Cause Headaches (Or Is At Least Associated With Them)
Headaches can be caused by many things, and experts have now added constipation to the list of possible causal factors.
Why? The first possible reason is stress. Being able to poop properly is a basic human function that’s very easy to take for granted...until it’s taken away from you.
The pain, inconvenience, worry and pressure of being constipated - and feeling your insides continue to fill up, block and bloat - can truly cause a lot of stress. This anxiety can in turn trigger tension headaches.
Also, a very common cause of constipation is dehydration. Your bowels need a sufficient supply of water to produce soft stools. When you’re not drinking enough water, fecal matter can become dry and compacted, creating the hard ‘pellets’ of poop that are common with constipation.
In this case, while the constipation does not directly cause headaches, the associated dehydration can. So by drinking more water, you may get a twofold relief from constipation and headaches!
Lastly, there is some evidence that headaches may be induced from toxin buildup during constipation. Your bowels are a major outlet for your body to eliminate toxic materials; if this waste is idling for longer than it should, it may be reabsorbed back into the body and trigger headaches.
2. Constipation Can Cause Breakouts!
Experts acknowledge the link between what happens in our gut and what shows up on our skin.
Fundamentally, constipation can be a sign that your inner ecosystem of gut flora is a little strained. And when our friendly flora isn’t in tip-top condition, it can manifest with more than just constipation. Ultimately, your skin can suffer too.
Skin conditions such as puffiness, acne, dark circles under the eyes and even rashes can all stem from internal gut issues.
Remember also that the skin is your body’s largest organ and does perform some functions of elimination. Therefore, toxins that enter through the body through unhealthy foods, or accumulate during constipation, can cause zits and other blemishes.
So if your body can’t get rid of toxins via the normal route (i.e. the bowels), it may break out via your skin instead!
3. Constipation Can Make You Lose Your Appetite
It is common for many people with constipation to lose their appetite.
But please let it be known that this is not an effective weight-loss strategy! ;-)
(Besides, constipation often causes a bloated and distended abdomen, which probably doesn’t go hand-in-hand with the goals of dieting!)
The type of appetite loss that accompanies chronic constipation is not a pleasant form of hunger suppression. Rather, it is a pervasive malaise that makes eating food feel like a total ‘turn off’ and real effort. Kinda like that weak, ‘off-food’ feeling you get after being sick - it’s not a vitalizing experience!
You see, the digestive system is a finely-tuned, well-honed machine of interconnecting parts that is constantly feeding messages back to the brain and your organs. Every time you eat a meal, special nerves that line the inside of your stomach are stretched, which triggers something called a mass movement.
A mass movement?! “What Is THAT?”
Well, have you ever noticed that, often, you feel the urge to poo within half an hour of eating a big meal? That is the magic of a mass movement in action! As you eat, nerves in your stomach stretch and neuronal signals are sent to your bowels to say,
“Hey down there! We’ve got another load coming through - it’s time to move things along.”
Your intestines are designed to respond by propelling food further through your digestive tract, hence the need to visit the toilet
With constipation, this feedback loop is interrupted. Instead of clearing space, your brain and stomach get signals that things are backed up. Just like any production line, it’s inefficient to keep adding more into the mix until congestion has cleared.
In other words, your body can shut down the urge to eat (i.e. put more in) until it’s taken care of the other side of the equation (i.e. what’s going out).
4. Constipation Can Give You Hemorrhoids (Ouch!)
Constipation is typified by a straining sensation when you attempt a bowel movement.
Just like any muscle that is trying to carry a workload that is heavier than its capacity, there’s going to be some wear and tear.
The length of our intestines is covered by smooth muscle fibers that propel food and waste along our digestive tract. When these muscles are put under pressure (such as during prolonged constipation), they also exert extra force on the veins which line the rectum.
During constipation, these veins can be stretched beyond their normal capacity, so that they are no longer able to hold their shape and integrity. Sometimes this is to the extent that they no longer stay within the internal cavity and protrude from the anus. This can be uncomfortable, indeed!
5. Can Constipation Give You Bad Breath?
According to one Danish study, yes.
This research showed that almost one quarter of bad breath may be attributed to constipation! Other reports indicate that people with constipation commonly notice a bad taste in the mouth or recurrent episodes of bad breath.
The reasons for this association are not completely clear. However, one theory is that constipation may lead to the proliferation of toxic gut bacteria, which produce malodorous gases. Kinda weird to think of these gases floating up into your mouth, right?
Ways To Treat Constipation
As you can see, there are many things that can cause constipation. As with any multifactorial health issue, there are many factors which can help.
Once you’ve ruled out any underlying medical issues or food intolerances, here are some diet and lifestyle strategies that can be very effective at treating constipation:
- Don’t Hold On: While I agree that going anytime, anywhere, is by no means a socially-acceptable solution, the less that you ‘put off’ going once you feel the urge, the better!
- Exercising Regularly: Physical activity sends blood flow to the entire digestive tract and can also stimulate a bowel movement.
- Lower Your Stress Levels: Stress and your emotional state has a very real impact on digestion. If you think about it, we even acknowledge this in everyday colloquialisms such as feeling ‘butterflies in your tummy’ and being ‘sick to the stomach’. Chronic stress can result in inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract and unpleasant digestive disorders such as constipation. Meditation, yoga, massage, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, aromatherapy and homeopathy can be great stress reducing tools.
- Dial Up Your Fiber Intake: It is believed that our ancestors ate up to 100g of fiber per day, whereas the average modern American hits less than 14g daily. Bump up your daily intake with high-fiber foods such as leafy greens, nuts, seeds, chia, (soaked and activated) quinoa and brown rice, organic prunes, soaked legumes and fresh produce. Just go slowly, though, as the bowel often doesn’t like a sudden change in fiber intake!
- Stay Well Hydrated:Hydrationis one of the strongest determining factors as to how soft your stool will be. A great article on how to tell if you’re chronically dehydrated can be found here
- Mind Your Medications: Certain antidepressants and NSAID medications can cause constipation. In fact, some supplements can, too! (Particularly iron and calcium carbonate.) It can be worthwhile to check if any pills you currently take may be adding to the problem.
- Trial A Probiotic and Eating More Fermented Foods. One study found that levels of the good bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteriawere significantly higher in people who didn’t experience constipation. Therefore, you can top up your levels of good bacteria with a high quality probiotic supplement and regular hit of fermented foods!
Hopefully, by now you will agree with me when I say that constipation shouldn’t be a taboo subject; it affects a lot of people and can seriously impact your health.