How does lifestyle trigger constipation?
Your lifestyle can have a huge impact on the way your body functions. That includes your digestive system. When life gets hectic, stress levels can rise. You're also more likely to 'grab and go' when you're busy, not eating the right foods, and you may have no time for regular exercise. Thankfully, your body sends you signals when it's not happy. This is your sign that your daily habits need to change.
On this page, you'll find lots of constipation lifestyle advice to help you take control and get back on track.
Which everyday habits can cause constipation?
When you know what's causing your constipation symptoms, you can do something about it. So, let’s see how your daily habits can trigger discomfort in your body.
Not eating enough high-fibre foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains can cause constipation. Eating a lot of high-fat meats, prepared food1, dairy products and eggs, or rich desserts and sugary sweets may also make you feel blocked up.
Stress impacts your body in a number of ways. This includes constipation. Whether you’re experiencing stress at work or in a relationship, your digestive system can pay the price. Emotional stress can cause tummy ache and change your bowel habits2.
Moving your body on the outside keeps things moving inside. It can be difficult to stay active when you’re taking care of your family, working long hours, or if you're stuck at home. And long periods in bed after illness or surgery are well known for causing constipation.
How does your lifestyle cause occasional constipation?
Constipation symptoms could be a sign your body is lacking what it needs to function properly. Take a look at the impact an inadequate diet or a busy lifestyle can have on your body:
Eating too many fatty or high calorie foods can cause constipation because this type of food usually lacks fibre. Fibre keeps more water and bulk in your intestines. And that makes poo softer and easier to pass. So if you don't have enough fibre in your diet, you can get constipated.
There are times when our lives can get a little stressful. And our tummies feel it too. Your gastrointestinal tract is a nervous system organ (just like the brain), and it can be affected by situational or chronic stress. Also, when you're feeling stressed, your good habits can fall by the wayside. For example, you might have trouble sleeping, have less energy for exercise and fall out of your normal routines. All these changes can trigger constipation symptoms.
Some constipation lifestyle advice to move things along
To feel more comfortable, you need to start by looking at your daily habits - and what you might need to change. But don't worry, you don't need to change all your habits at once. Take it step by step, and see how your body reacts to each change you make.
1. Try a high-fibre diet
A high-fibre diet will help treat constipation and keep you regular. It works by increasing the weight and size of your poo - and softening it too3. And this makes it easier to pass.
As a rule of thumb, adults should get 30 grams of fibre a day. Good sources of fibre are fruits (such as berries, apples, oranges and prunes), vegetables (like carrots, spinach and sweet potatoes), nuts (including almonds, peanuts and pecans), whole grains (such as brown rice, oatmeal and wheat bread) and legumes (including lentils, black beans and soybeans). All of these sources of fibre can help4.
2. Get some exercise
Being physically active can keep your bowels active too. Try to exercise most days of the week — and you'll start feeling better in no time. Find the exercise that's right for you and always listen to your body. For example, does your body feel better after walking, running or yoga? If you’re not sure how much exercise you should do, consult your doctor.
Not convinced? Physical activity doesn't just help with constipation. It also improves mood, focus, sleep and helps us feel more energised, calm and confident5.
3. Set your toilet time
Ideally, your bowel movements will work with your internal body clock. But sometimes our bodies need a little training. Try setting yourself some daily toilet time. Tag your routine onto other routines - such as after breakfast or dinner - to get your body into the habit of going to the loo. And remember, whenever you have the urge to poo, go to the toilet! Don't ignore it, because that can lead to constipation.
4. Take control of your stress
Because stress can have an impact on your digestive system, learn to relax. Unwind with your favourite music, or make time for some exercise. It's important to take care of yourself.
Frequently Asked Questions
When we start talking constipation, the same questions often pop up. Here they are, along with the answers.
Science has shown that stress disorders and constipation often occur together. Studies show a slower rate of motility (speed of transit of food) through the colon in patients who have anxiety. But we don't yet know what comes first - the anxiety or the constipation. A theory put forward to explain the link between stress and constipation involves the enteric nervous system and the gut-brain axis6.
The enteric nervous system (ENS) or ‘second brain’ is a series of nerves that line the digestive tract. These nerves, consisting of millions of neurons, control the digestion of food. In states of stress and anxiety, disruption to the ENS-brain connection reduces motility through the gastrointestinal tract. And this leads to constipation. This represents a malfunctioning of the ‘gut-brain axis’, which connects the gut to the brain7.
But how are disruptions in the gut-brain axis caused by stress and anxiety? Anxiety may restrict the function of the smooth muscle and cause constipation. Alternatively, stress that isn't dealt with may be ‘internalised’ and lead to changes in gut-brain signalling. Problems with the gut-brain axis may also be linked with irritable bowel syndrome8.
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1. Basilisco G, Coletta M. Chronic constipation: a critical review. Dig Liver Dis. 2013 Nov;45(11):886-93.
2. Soares RL. Irritable bowel syndrome: a clinical review. World J Gastroenterol. 2014 Sep 14;20(34):12144-60. http://dx.doi.org/10.3748/wjg.v20.i34.12144
3. MayoClinic 2019 https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/constipation/symptoms-causes/syc-20354253 Accessed 14/11/2022
4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health (NIH) – National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Constipation. 2018 https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/constipation/eating-diet-nutrition
5. ODPHP (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of disease prevention and health promotion). Health Care Providers: Talk to your patients about physical activity, 2018 https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-11/PAG_MYW_HCP_FS.pdf
6. Jessurun JG, van Harten PN, Egberts TC, Pijl YJ, Wilting I, Tenback DE. The Relation between Psychiatric Diagnoses and Constipation in Hospitalized Patients: A Cross-Sectional Study. Psychiatry J. 2016;2016:2459693.
7. Mindsethealth - Anxiety and Constipation - Can Stress Cause Constipation? 2019 https://www.mindsethealth.com/matter/anxiety-and-constipation Accessed 14/11/2022
8. Furness JB. The enteric nervous system and neurogastroenterology. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2012 Mar 6;9(5):286-94. http://www.uzhelth.org/docs/second-student-mobility/furness%202012.pdf