Understanding Constipation and How to Relieve it
Are we really going to talk about poop? Yes, we are!
The truth is, your bowel movements can provide valuable insight into the health of your digestive system and beyond. We have a saying here at The Functional Kitchen: if the eyes are the windows into the soul, then poop is the window into the body!
Don't be shy, read on! After all, everybody poops!
What is "normal" when it comes to bowel movements?
Having a bowel movement one to three times a day is typical - your body has to take the garbage out somehow. Now, just because you're going one to three times a day doesn't automatically mean everything is functioning as it should. The way your poop looks matters too!
The Bristol Stool Chart below shows various stool examples (2). Healthy, ideal bowel movements should resemble type 3 or 4. Additionally, your stool should be free of white clouds, undigested food, and unexpected colors.
What is constipation?
So we've discussed what typical bowel movements should be like, but how do you know if you're constipated vs. just going to the bathroom a little off of your normal schedule?
Here are several indicators that can help you identify constipation:
The American Gastroenterological Association flags less than 3 bowel movements a week as a sign of constipation. Even less than 1 bowel movement a day though can be a sign that things may not be working optimally (2).
It is difficult and/or painful to have a bowel movement (2,3).
Your stool is hard and/or dry. This happens because your stool sits in your colon longer than usual before being evacuated, allowing your body to reabsorb more water than usual, from your poop (3,4).
You have a bowel movement but don't feel totally empty afterward. Yes, you can still have a bowel movement and be constipated (2,3)! In fact, it's possible to experience diarrhea and constipation at the same time.
What causes constipation?
There are a whole slew of things that can cause constipation so the list below is by no means exhaustive. It is also important to note that constipation is not an immediate cause for concern - there are simple reasons why you may be constipated that have relatively easy solutions.
Here are just a few of the reasons why you may experience constipation (2,3,4):
There isn't enough fiber in your diet.
You're not drinking enough water throughout the day. Remember the ideal stool types from the Bristol Stool Chart? Those require the right amount of water in your stool.
You may not be getting enough movement throughout the day.
Your stress levels are high. The gut-brain connection is real, and if we are constantly in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode, our gut motility may slow down.
How can I relieve constipation?
While there are some common ways to treat various forms of constipation, it is important to address the root causes of constipation. Otherwise, your constipation may come back, may worsen, or may lead to additional complications.
Here are some frequently used techniques (2,3,4):
Up the fiber intake! I'm not talking about fiber supplements here (although those are useful in certain situations). Rather, I'm talking about whole fruits, veggies, and grains. Chia seeds and avocados are also phenomenal sources of fiber. Increase slowly; too much fiber can worsen constipation. Aim for about 30-40 grams per day.
Hydrate! There's no magic formula for how much water everyone should drink. Here are a couple of good guidelines though - drink water when you are thirsty and aim for at least half your body weight in ounces, every day.
Get up and move! Let gravity help you out here. If you are sitting, stool may not move through your colon as it should. Standing up and taking a short walk may help get things moving.
Lower the stress! Help your body out by getting it back into its rest and digest state. This may help your intestines contract properly. These contractions help move stool along and out of your body.
Give yourself an abdominal massage! Follow the steps below, applying gentle pressure to your abdomen with your fingertips:
Continence Foundation of Australia. Bristol Stool Chart. https://www.continence.org.au/bristol-stool-chart. Published 2021. Updated 04/07/2021. Accessed 08/09, 2021.
American Gastroenterological Association. Constipation. https://gastro.org/practice-guidance/gi-patient-center/topic/constipation/. Accessed 08/09, 2021.
International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. Constipation. https://iffgd.org/gi-disorders/constipation/. Accessed 08/09, 2021.
Cleveland Clinic. Constipation. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/4059-constipation. Published 2019. Updated 11/07/2019. Accessed 08/09, 2021.