Constipation and pregnancy
So many changes take place in a woman's body during pregnancy. Some are less favourable than others, like constipation. Let's look at the causes of constipation during pregnancy and what you can do to feel better.
What are the causes of constipation during pregnancy?
For pregnant women, constipation is a very common condition. It affects at least half of all pregnant women at some point, and tends to be more troublesome in women who were already prone to constipation before pregnancy1,2. Let's explore several causes of constipation during pregnancy.
During pregnancy, the body is expanding, evolving, and creating increased amounts of hormones. Rising progesterone levels and reduced motilin hormone levels can increase the time it takes for waste to move through the bowel. These hormonal changes can also increase water absorption from the intestines, which leads to hard, dry poo which is difficult to pass. Together, these changes can slow down intestinal transit2,3, making you less regular.
Towards the end of pregnancy, the expansion of the uterus can put increased pressure on the intestines. As a result, the intestines may need more time to process digestion, which can make you feel rather uncomfortable and constipated. Usual signs of constipation during pregnancy include abdominal pain or discomfort, difficult and infrequent bowel movements, and hard poo, which can hurt to pass.
One of the other causes of constipation during pregnancy is diet. Whether you are already pregnant or planning on becoming pregnant, a healthy, well-balanced diet is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your future child. Certain foods can exacerbate constipation, including dairy or red meat. The vitamins and supplements you may take during pregnancy, such as iron or calcium, can also trigger constipation2.
It's always best to speak to your doctor about signs of constipation during pregnancy.
How does pregnancy change your body?
Pregnancy creates a lot of change in a woman’s body. This includes hormonal changes and, of course, a growing uterus which can press against the lower bowel in the later trimesters. Let's explore some of these changes, and discover how they can be common causes of constipation during pregnancy:
Increased levels of hormones
Pregnant women produce more hormones than usual, including progesterone, which is a muscle relaxant. Progesterone prevents uterus contractions, but also relaxes the muscles of the nearby digestive system, causing it to slow down. This can lead to dry, hard and infrequent poos. Another hormone, aldosterone, makes the colon absorb more liquid and electrolytes than usual. This can also make poo harder and more difficult to pass2.
Changing eating habits
Pregnancy can make women crave certain foods and actively avoid others. But any sudden change to your diet can cause constipation. Fibre is key to staying regular. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains will all help stimulate the digestive muscles and hydrate hard poo. Some of the supplements taken during pregnancy can, rather annoyingly, cause constipation. Iron-based preparations and antacids can both slow down the intestinal transit.
A few tricks to get things moving
To start feeling better, the first step is to look at your lifestyle. Review your habits, and see if anything in your daily routine could be the cause of your constipation. Start by making small changes, and notice how your body reacts.
1. Get some exercise
Even a walk can help. Physical activity will stimulate intestinal motility and reduce the risk of other unpleasant ailments. Things like swelling or haemorrhoids. Swimming is great too. Moderate exercise like this will reduce or even prevent constipation by stimulating your bowels. Try to exercise three times a week for 20-30 minutes a time.
2. Adapt your diet
A balanced diet, including lots of fibre, is a good first step to giving your body what it needs to compensate for the rise of hormones and changes you are going through. Good nutrition can often meet your iron, calcium and vitamin needs during pregnancy too. And this will reduce the need for iron supplements, which can cause constipation. Talk to your doctor or midwife about checking your iron levels. They can also make recommendations on how to manage iron intake during pregnancy.
3. Learn to manage stress
Stress can be one of the many causes of constipation during pregnancy. So try to find time to relax and take care of yourself. Whatever calms you down and makes you feel better.
If your stress doesn't go away, or you're suffering from anxiety or depression, speak to your doctor who will be able to help.
4. Get comfortable
Constipation can cause some annoying ailments and complications. These include haemorrhoids (piles), torn skin in your anus (known as an anal fissure), poo that you can't get out and, after straining too hard, for too long, your intestine can even protrude from your anus. So if you're constipated, it's important to deal with it, so you can be comfortable again.
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1. American Pregnancy Association. Constipation in Pregnancy. 2020. https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/pregnancy-health-wellness/constipation-during-pregnancy-964/
2. Harms RW. Mayo Clinic guide to a healthy pregnancy. 2011. Mayo Foundation for medical education and research.
3. Trottier M, Erebara A, Bozzo P. Treating constipation during pregnancy. Can Fam Physician. 2012 Aug;58(8):836-8.