Being constipated is an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least. You know what we're talking about—the bloating, pain, and all that time waiting around in the bathroom hoping for something to happen. Most of us have experienced this at some point—for some, it's even a fairly regular occurrence.
According to the Mayo Clinic, occasional constipation is common and is defined as having fewer than three bowel movements each week. For some people, the condition is chronic, meaning these infrequent bowel movements persist for several weeks or longer.
While constipation may seem to arise at any time and with no explanation, it turns out constipation among women typically happens for several common reasons. To help you learn more about the top reasons for constipation, we reached out to three registered dietitians. Note that the causes they provided are geared towards those assigned females at birth; It's always best to consult with a physician if you are experiencing severe constipation.
Keep reading to learn about the most common constipation culprits out there.
Not Enough Fiber
Inadequate fiber intake is one of the most common causes of constipation, Jaramillo says, which makes a lot of sense when you understand that fiber plays a large role in keeping your digestive system running smoothly.
To steer clear of this source of constipation, aim to consume 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day or more. "Many Americans are not even getting half of this in," Jaramillo points out.
Papanos suggests consuming a combination of soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and can help lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. You can find it in foods like oats, beans, and nuts. Insoluble fiber doesn't dissolve in water but helps move food through your digestive system. You can find it in whole grains, carrots, beans, and brown rice.
Inadequate Water Intake
Inadequate water intake is another common contributor to constipation—especially if you've been rapidly increasing your fiber intake without making sure to consume more water at the same time. "If we increase fiber without also getting adequate fluid, we can develop constipation," Jaramillo says.
Most people should drink at least eight glasses, or 64 ounces, of water each day. Papanos suggests aiming to drink half an ounce of water for every pound of body weight. So if you weigh 140 pounds, you'll want to drink 70 ounces of water each day. But if you're really active, that may not be enough. "If you are active, I recommend increasing this by 20 ounces for every hour of activity."
Low Caloric Intake
If you're not eating enough—whether through restricting calories or fasting, you may find yourself constipated. This is often connected with insufficient fiber and/or water intake.
Hypothyroidism is a fairly common condition in which the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough of some hormones needed by the body. Some common hypothyroidism signs include constipation, fatigue, weight gain, cold intolerance, weight gain, and dry skin, though these can vary from person to person.
When thyroid function slows, such as in hypothyroidism, fewer hormones that aid in digestion are released, and the lack of these hormones may cause digestion to be sluggish, Courduff explains. This can be treated with medication.
High Estrogen Levels
Estrogen dominance, also often referred to as high estrogen levels, is a common cause of constipation and occurs in cases where excess estrogen inhibits bile salt release from the liver into the intestines, Papanos says. "If you present with symptoms of estrogen dominance, it is important to treat this hormonal imbalance to improve your bowel movements."
In addition to constipation, some estrogen dominance symptoms include water retention, tender breasts, heavy periods, and difficulty losing weight.
Lack of Exercise
Did you know that lack of exercise can contribute to constipation? This one may hit close to home (no pun intended) for many of us this year, as many people have been spending more time indoors due to the pandemic and may have fewer opportunities for exercise.
"Activity promotes the intestines to contract, which moves things through the digestive tract quickly," Courduff says. She explains that when food transits slowly through the intestines, this causes too much water to be reabsorbed and may lead to dry, hard stools.
Try taking a 15 to 30-minute walk after eating and see if you notice any differences in constipation or digestion.
"Stress can impact normal gut function and cause bowel irregularities and constipation," Courduff says.
To reduce your stress levels and hopefully nix constipation, try meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or any other activity that's calming to you. Peruse this helpful Byrdie article to learn seven things you can do to de-stress.
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, or SIBO, is a condition that occurs when there's an abnormal increase, or overgrowth, of bacteria within the small intestine. SIBO typically affects people with symptoms like constipation, bloating, stomach pain, heartburn, loss of appetite, nausea, diarrhea, and feeling uncomfortably full after eating.
"It can be due to years of taking proton pump inhibitor drugs, stomach surgery, or high estrogen levels, to name a few, " Papanos says.
SIBO is common among people who have had stomach surgery, but it can also arise in many other situations. So if you're experiencing these symptoms, it may be a good idea to check in with your doctor.
Constipation can pop up for a bunch of different reasons. Some additional causes we haven't mentioned include calcium or iron supplements, low potassium levels, irritable bowel syndrome, consuming too much dairy, or even traveling. But the good news is, constipation is often pretty simple to address once you know what's causing it.
If you've been struggling with constipation and are desperate for relief, you may want to schedule an appointment with your doctor to see if you can get to the bottom of it.