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5 causes behind constipation

Constipation can be frustrating and painful, but if you understand its causes, you can get your system moving again.

Luckily, it’s often simple to pinpoint the source of your problem.

“In a lot of cases, it’s about being honest with yourself about what your water intake looks like and what your diet looks like,” says Frank Lockwood, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician.

He emphasizes that patients don’t need to suffer through constipation or write it off as insignificant. Regular bowel movements are important for good health.

“Most people think of constipation as a mild thing,” Dr. Lockwood says, “but if it’s bad enough to come to the doctor, then at that point you really have to take it seriously.”

Here are five common culprits behind constipation:

Dehydration

Water promotes stool motility. If your body isn’t getting the hydration it needs, you’re going to run into gastrointestinal problems, Dr. Lockwood says.

That isn’t to say all liquids are the same. Caffeine and dairy, for example, firm the stool, so drinking a big foamy latte is probably not a good idea.

Poor diet

Eating a nutritious diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables promotes regular bowel movements, Dr. Lockwood says.

“Fruit and fiber are agents that suck water into the colon,” he explains. “If it’s softer, it helps things to move easier.”

Medications

Most medications have the potential to cause constipation, Dr. Lockwood says. A few are particularly well known for it: Antidepressants can slow the central nervous system, while narcotics slow bowel impulses.

Trickier problems arise when patients take multiple medications, Dr. Lockwood notes. Those prescriptions can interact and contribute to additional constipation issues.

“It’s really important to try to keep that in mind, especially for our older population,” he says.

Lack of exercise

If you’ve been idle lately, your gut may have become idle as well. Regular exercise is important for maintaining frequent bowel movements.

“When you are active, it keeps the nervous system active,” Dr. Lockwood says. “It keeps everything moving.”

Psychological issues

Some people develop avoidance issues around their stool, leading to constipation. They may have internalized messages about bowel movements being unclean or wrong in some way, Dr. Lockwood explains.

“They kind of resist everything about going,” he adds.

Talk to your doctor if these issues sound familiar. Your doctor can also assess whether your constipation may be pathological and caused, for example, by physical blockages like polyps or tumors.

If your constipation is frequent but doesn’t have physical causes, you may be dealing with irritable bowel syndrome. But Dr. Lockwood emphasizes that many of the steps for managing occasional constipation can also help IBS.

Lifestyle changes are beneficial for everyone, he says.

“We live in this society where we’re drinking caffeine, we’re on the run, we’re eating cheese and crackers for lunch,” he says with a laugh. Oftentimes, simple diet and exercise changes can be enough to get things moving.

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