By Dr. Shrey Lakhotia, BDS
What causes constipation
The word constipation is derived from the Latin verb “constipare”, which means “to press/crowd closely together”.
The majority of the cases of constipation don’t have a specific cause, as there are many factors that can result in getting constipated.
The many “contributory” factors that increase the chances of a person getting constipated are as follows:
1. Lack of roughage in the diet
Lack of fiber in the diet can lead to constipation. Fiber adds bulk to the stool, thereby, helping the colon to move it along. It also is like a sponge, helping to keep stool from drying out. Fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
2. Lack of physical activity
Physical movement is another element as to what causes constipation, as it aids in normal bowel movements. Even a 5 minute walk might help.
3. An improper diet
Constipation may be caused by a poor diet, one filled with sugars, processed foods or fast foods. This includes such things as white breads, pastries, doughnuts, fast-food hamburger buns, potato chips, and french fries.
The intake of foods such as milk, cheese, white potatoes, white rice, white flour, and red meat may also contribute to constipation.
4. Irregular eating
Skipping meals may be another factor of what causes constipation.
When there is an insufficient bulk of stool for the colon to squeeze against to move towards the rectum, stool can stay in the colon too long, resulting in too much water being pulled out, and the stool becoming dry and hard.
A change in routine or lifestyle, such as a change in eating habits, can negatively effect bowel movements.
5. Inadequate time allotment
Not taking enough time for defecation can make a person feel constipated. Limited privacy when going to the bathroom can cause a person to cut things off before the colon is completely evacuated.
This tendency is more common in children, due to a fear of pain when going to the bathroom, and from poor toilet training.
6. Ignoring the urge to defecate
What causes constipation? Ignoring the natural urge to defecate. With a pressing schedule at school or work, it can be quite inconvenient when the body says it's time.
Not responding to nature’s prompts is one of the main contributors to constipation. Another opportunity might not present itself for quite some time. In the mean time, the colon keeps pulling out more moisture (just one of it’s jobs), and stool becomes dryer, harder and more compact.
The long-term consequence of habitually ignoring the urge to go may interfere with the body’s time clock, resulting in these prompts coming less often. A dangerous slippery slope indeed.
Constipation occurs more during pregnancy because a woman’s body produces extra progesterone. This acts as a muscle relaxant, which can cause the colon muscle to overly relax and not do it’s job.
The bowel moves stool along to the anus by a process known as peristalsis (the wave-like motion of the colon muscle as it contracts and relax).
Increased levels of progesterone counters the contraction of bowel muscles, leading to difficulty in moving the stool through the colon.
Reduced activity and the pressure of a growing uterus against the intestines also contribute to pregnancy constipation.
8. Lack of fluids
Not drinking enough fluids, especially consuming too much caffeine (a diuretic) and too little water can lead to dehydration. Even with mild dehydration, the colon will extract extra water from the stool for use elsewhere.
This in turn causes stool to shrink, and get dry and hard (to remain soft, stool should be about 75% water). When stool becomes dry, bowel movements become difficult and painful.
9. Psychological issues
A person suffering from psychological problems like depression or anxiety may be prone to constipation. These emotional issues can affect the colon by lessening peristalsis, and thereby extending the time stool remains in the colon.
10. A medical condition
The above 9 factors may contribute to what causes constipation. However, certain medical conditions may more directly cause constipation. They are as follows:
Neurological dysfunction can impair the motility of the colon
Disorders like Multiple Sclerosis, Spinal Cord Injury, Diabetes Mellitus, Hirschsprung’s Disease (affects the bowel making it difficult to pass stools), Chronic Idiopathic Intestinal Pseudo Obstruction, Chagas Disease, Scleroderma, and Idiopathic Megacolon alter the normal motility of the colon, which causes constipation.
Sometimes constipation may be a side effect of one or more medicines a person is are taking. Common types of medication that can cause constipation include:
• Calcium channel blockers
• Antacids containing calcium or aluminum (medicine to treat indigestion)
• Opiates such as codeine and morphine
• Iron supplements
• Anticholinergic agents
Constipation caused by medication usually eases once a person stops taking the medicine. However, don’t stop taking any prescribed medication unless advised to do so by your physician.
Increased calcium levels
The following conditions may cause an increased level of calcium in the blood stream.
• Cushing’s syndrome
Learn more about how excessive calcium causes constipation
Mechanical causes of constipation
Hernias, volvulus, diverticulitis, colorectal tumors, and intussusception can physically obstruct stool, making it harder to proceed through the colon.
When it is painful to defecate we tend to avoid having a bowel movement. Such things as hemorrhoids, fissures, proctitis or abscesses may lead to the retention of stool, constipation, and the impaction of feces.
The role of magnesium
Inside the intestines, magnesium ions exert an osmotic effect, causing water to be retained in the intestinal lumen. This increases the water content of stool, which induces defecation.
Surveys consistently show that the intake of magnesium for those living in the USA is substantially lower than recommended amounts.
A magnesium supplement
Taking a daily magnesium supplement can be very effective against constipation, without the dangers generally associated with laxatives like Milk of Magnesia or Epson Salt. Just a single dose of these items may contain 3,500 to 4,000 mg of magnesium.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the maximum Upper Tolerable Limit for magnesium in supplement form for adults is 350 mg per day of elemental magnesium
PLEASE NOTE: It is important to discuss it with your doctor before taking any over-the-counter remedy, including supplemental magnesium.
1. Office of dietary supplements, national institutes of health, and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.