How is pregnancy impacting your digestive system?
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. Various factors can trigger this discomfort during and even also after the pregnancy. Here are a few explanations of why you might be feeling uncomfortable:
During pregnancy, the body is expanding, evolving, and creating increased amounts of the hormones. Rising progesterone levels during pregnancy and reduced motilin hormone levels lead to increases in bowel transit time and increased water absorption from the intestines, which causes stool to dry out and become harder which makes bowel movements more difficult. These effects participate in slowing down the intestinal transit2,3.
Towards the end of pregnancy, the expansion of the uterus can put an increased pressure on the intestines. Resulting from this, intestines may need more time to process digestion, causing the discomfort linked to constipation. During these times, women are subject to abdominal pain or discomfort, difficult and infrequent bowel movements, and the passage of hard stools. These are usual signs of constipation.
Whether you are already pregnant or just planning to become pregnant, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your future child. When it comes to nutrition, many women change their habits, stop smoking and suspend alcohol consumption when they get pregnant. However, some food can exacerbate constipation, including dairy or red meat. Often, health care providers prescribe prenatal vitamins and supplements, including iron and calcium which promote constipation on their own2. If you have any signs of constipation possibly resulting from a change in nutrition habits, you should consult your doctor.
What effect does pregnancy have on my body?
Pregnancy brings a lot of change for a woman’s body including hormonal changes and a growing uterus hence pressing against the lower bowel in the later stages of pregnancy. Constipation is a very common result of these changes in your body caused by pregnancy. So here are a few triggers and their effects:
Increased level of hormones
Pregnant women produce more hormones than usual, including the hormone called progesterone, which is a muscle relaxant. Progesterone prevents uterus contractions, but also relaxes the muscles of the nearby digestive system, causing digestion to slow down, leading to dry, hard and infrequent stool. Another hormone, aldosterone, makes the colon absorb more liquid and electrolytes than usual which makes stools harder and bowel movements more difficult2. All this causes your bowels to be less stimulated and you may find going to the toilets harder.
Changing nutrition habits
Pregnancy can make a woman change her diet habits; maybe you’re eating way more of one thing while you can’t stand the sight of another one. In any case, sudden changes, or certain types of food can cause constipation, Meaning that if you’re eating less fibers, chances are that your body will lack resources contained in these foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains...) and might struggle to stimulate the digestive muscles or hydrate stools enough. Supplements taken during pregnancy such as iron-based preparations or antacids can slow down the intestinal transit and therefore trigger constipation as well.
A few tricks to move things along
There is no secret: to help yourself feel better, the first step is to change a few things in your daily life. But don’t worry! You don’t need to change your habits all at once; step by step, see how your body reacts to the few changes you make.
1. Get some exercise
Moving on the outside will get things moving on the inside. Even taking a walk can stimulate intestinal motility and reduces the risk of other unpleasant ailments such as swelling or hemorrhoids. Walking, swimming and other moderate exercises will reduce or even prevent constipation by stimulating your bowels. Consider scheduling exercise three times a week for 20-30 minutes each.
2. Adapt your diet
A balanced alimentation involves fibers (fruits plums, kiwis, figs…) and vegetables (radicchio, lettuce…). This is a good first step towards supplying your body with what you need 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 which may reduce or eliminate iron supplements promoting constipation. Talk to your health care provider about checking your iron levels and recommendations to manage iron intake during pregnancy.
3. Learn to manage stress
Pregnancy can come with a bit of stress and mood swings, depending on women and the stage of pregnancy. Simply try to find time to relax and take care of yourself. Whatever calms you down and makes you feel better. However, if you’re having problems with prolonged stress, anxiety or even depression, we’d advise you to see your doctor.
4. Get all discomfort treated
Constipation may cause you troublesome complications. These can interfere with your daily life and affect your happiness and effectiveness. They may include swollen veins in your anus (hemorrhoids), torn skin in your anus (anal fissure), stool that can't be expelled and even intestine protruding from the anus (rectal prolapse) caused by straining during stool evacuation.
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- American Pregnancy Association. Constipation in Pregnancy. 2020. https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/pregnancy-health-wellness/constipation-during-pregnancy-964/
- Harms RW. Mayo Clinic guide to a healthy pregnancy. 2011. Mayo Foundation for medical education and research.
- Trottier M, Erebara A, Bozzo P. Treating constipation during pregnancy. Can Fam Physician. 2012 Aug;58(8):836-8.