What is constipation? Symptoms, causes and prevention

Constipation is a condition causing less frequent and /or difficult bowel movements. This is typically due to changes in the diet or inadequate fibre intake. Constipation is common and can affect people of any age – including babies and children. It is typically no cause for concern and can be treated at home with simple lifestyle and diet changes. This guide will explore constipation, highlighting the causes, symptoms, and prevention/treatments available.

What is constipation?

Constipation is usually defined by a reduced amount of bowel movements. Typically, bowel movements that occur less than three times per week are considered to be constipation. This however depends on your unique pattern, so it depends on what is normal for you. Constipation is also defined by:

  • Dry, hard, lumpy and large stools
  • Difficult/painful bowel movements
  • Feeling that the bowels aren’t fully empty after a bowel movement

What are the symptoms of constipation?

Symptoms of constipation typically include:

  • Straining/difficulties passing stools
  • Less frequent bowel movements
  • Dry, hard, lumpy or large stools
  • Stomach ache
  • Cramping in the abdomen
  • Loss of appetite
  • Bloating
  • Feeling sick
  • Nausea

What are the causes of constipation?

Constipation can be caused by a number of reasons, including the ones listed below.

Lack of dietary fibre

Fibre promotes regular, healthy bowel movements as it contributes to normal stool size and consistency. A lack of fibre in the diet can therefore result in constipation, particularly unhealthy diets comprising of processed foods and foods that are high in saturated fats.

Insufficient fluid intake

Fibre needs water to be processed effectively and promote good digestion. Therefore, a healthy amount of fibre in the diet needs to be accompanied by adequate amounts of water to maximise its benefits. Dietary fibre without water can in fact cause further constipation, gas and bloating.

Lack of exercise

Low levels of physical activity can lead to constipation. This includes spending long periods of time sitting and lying down, as well as a general lack of physical exercise.

Regularly ignoring the urge to pass stools

Resisting the urge to pass stool on a regular basis can have an effect on the nerves that sense when you need to pass stool. This can in turn lead to constipation.

Medication side effect

Medications such as those used to treat depression, high blood pressure, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease can slow down intestinal movement and affect the muscles and nerves in the digestive tract.

Stress , anxiety or depression

Hormones such as stress hormones can have a direct effect on bodily processes such as bowel movements. Additionally, people who suffer from stress, and anxiety and depression are more likely to have a poor diet and unhealthy habits such as smoking and drinking excessively.

How to prevent and treat constipation

Prevention

You can decrease your risk of constipation by adopting the following healthy habits:

  • Incorporate plenty of fibre in your diet such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, lentils, legumes and chickpeas.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in fibre and fluids
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy BMI
  • Practice relaxation and mindfulness techniques
  • Practice good bowel habits

Treatment

Constipation typically goes away without treatment within a few weeks. However, standard constipation treatments can be used if necessary. These can include laxatives, stool softeners, or prescription medications in extreme cases.

Using medications to relieve constipation isn’t recommended as a long-term solution as these do not treat the cause of the problem and could affect the body’s ability to pass stool naturally in the long term.

How can I get tested for constipation?

At a clinic

You can opt for our Digestion and Nutrition Essential plan, which includes a lactose intolerance test, a stomach cancer risk test, a gluten intolerance test, and a calprotectin test to check for signs of Crohn’s disease, IBD and IBS. Our health checks consist of in-depth, face-to-face health checks with one of our Health Assessment Specialists, which you can easily book online at one of over 2,000 mobile clinics available nationwide. You will receive a wide array of other key health markers and a detailed results report sent through the post.