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Why Constipation Is So Common, And How To Overcome It

When I was younger, constipation was a big problem for me.  It was typical for me to have one or two bowel movements per week, and often times I had to take laxatives and consume a lot of fiber in order to move my bowels.  Due to the constipation I developed other problems, such as hemorrhoids.  Millions of people have the same problem, and while sometimes this condition can be resolved quickly, such as when it’s caused by hypothyroidism, other times it can take months or years to correct this problem.

While having a hypothyroid condition can lead to constipation, many of the people I consult with who have hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis already had constipation before developing their condition.  So in some cases the decrease in thyroid hormone isn’t the main cause of the constipation, but it can exacerbate the problem.  If an imbalance in thyroid hormone is the primary factor which is responsible for constipation, then this imbalance of course needs to be addressed.  Although people with hyperthyroidism and Graves’ Disease typically have the opposite problem (an increase in daily bowel movements), some people with hyperthyroid conditions experience constipation as well.

In addition to hypothyroidism, there are numerous other factors which can cause constipation.  Here are some of the more common ones, and what you can do to help correct this:

1) Not enough fluid intake. When a patient of mine is experiencing constipation, one of the first things I’ll ask is if he or she is drinking enough water.  But how much water is enough?  Typically you want to drink about 40 to 50% of your body weight in ounces, which admittedly can be a challenge for some people.  I’ll have some people tell me they drink 6 to 8 glasses of water per day.  This might be sufficient for some people, but of course it depends on how many ounces each glass consists of, and then how much the person weighs.

I’m not one to drink full glasses of water at a time, as I have a 20 ounce water bottle, and I take frequent sips from this, and my goal is to try to get through at least two of these per day.  In addition, I usually have a couple of smoothies per day, and each time I’m adding 16 ounces of water.  So I’m drinking about 70 to 80 ounces of water per day, and my body weight is around 165.  On days I exercise I will drink even more water.  And just to let you know, I wasn’t always a water drinker, as growing up I primarily drank cow’s milk, soda, and fruit punch.  Fortunately I was never a coffee drinker, but it still wasn’t easy to stop drinking these other beverages and drink as much water as I currently do.

2) Not enough fiber in the diet. You ideally want your fiber intake each day to be 25 to 30 grams.  Eating at least five servings of vegetables per day will help you to accomplish this, although doing this alone probably won’t be sufficient.  7 to 9 servings per day would be even better, and this has always been one of my main weaknesses, as growing up I never ate vegetables, and so even to this day it’s challenging for me to have five serving of vegetables per day, let alone nine.  However, since I began adding vegetables to my smoothies it has become much easier for me to reach this goal.

In addition to eating plenty of fresh, and preferably organic vegetables, you can also get some of your fiber from fruit.  Apples are an excellent source of fiber.  Eating raw nuts and seeds can provide you with some fiber, although you don’t want to eat too many servings of nuts and seeds each day.  There are actually two types of fiber, as there is insoluble and soluble fiber.  Vegetables and most grains consist of mostly insoluble fiber, while fruits, oats, and legumes have mostly soluble fiber (1 [1]).  Both types of fiber can help with constipation, although insoluble fiber will help to a greater extent.

Some people will add a fiber supplement to their diet to help with constipation.  While it would be best to get all of the fiber you need from the food you eat, if this is a problem then I’d prefer for people to take a fiber supplement than to remain constipated.  Many people take Psyllium Husks, which can help a great deal with constipation and can be purchased at most health food stores.  However, some people are sensitive to this and therefore need to take a different type of fiber supplement, such as apple pectin or rice bran.  Also, those people taking levothyroxine will want to make sure not to take any fiber supplements at the same time, as this can affect the absorption of thyroid hormone.  This usually isn’t a problem since most people who take thyroid hormone take it on an empty stomach upon waking up in the morning.

3) Food allergies. Sometimes having certain food sensitivities can cause or contribute to constipation.  One of the most common food allergies which can cause constipation is cow’s milk.  Sometimes other foods can cause constipation, as some sources have shown wheat, eggs, beef, and soy as causing constipation in some people.  And there have been other foods as well.  Once again, I’m not suggesting for people with constipation to avoid all of these foods.  For example, eggs are a very healthy food, and most people do fine eating them regularly.  However, if you have constipation and have followed the rest of the advice given in this post yet are still having problems, then you might want to try eliminating one or more of these foods for three or four days and see how you respond.  I know some healthcare professionals will recommend testing for food allergies or sensitivities.  While this is an option, such testing isn’t completely accurate, and so rather than spend hundreds of dollars on this testing I would just follow an elimination diet.

4) Magnesium deficiency. Being deficient in magnesium can cause constipation.  Of course if you eat a good amount of the foods I listed above then this will help with this.  However, if someone has a moderate to severe constipation problem then supplementation is probably necessary, and a person might need to take 300 to 600mg of magnesium daily (spread throughout the day) in order to correct a magnesium deficiency.  In addition, too much calcium can also cause constipation, and so if you’re taking high doses of calcium supplements each day then this might also be causing or contributing to your problem.

5) Gut problems. If someone has problems with their digestive system then this potentially can lead to problems with constipation.  Imbalances in the gut flora and/or an increase in intestinal permeability can be factors.

So if you are experiencing constipation, then hopefully this information will help you to overcome this problem.  Sometimes all it takes to correct constipation is to drink more water and/or to get more fiber in the diet.  But other times it can be more complex.  Either way, for optimal health you really do need to move your bowels at least once per day, and when constipation is related to a food allergy, problems with the gut, or another complex situation, then your best bet is to work with a natural healthcare professional.