Constipation can be painful and uncomfortable and something babies, children and adults can all experience.
It's estimated that around 1 in every 7 adults and up to 1 in every 3 children in the UK has constipation at any one time.
Constipation affects twice as many women as men and is also more common in older adults and during pregnancy.1
This article lifts the lid on constipation – what it is and what causes it, and shares some practical constipation remedies we can all try to help get things moving again.
What is constipation?
Constipation is something that we can all experience on one or more occasion throughout our lives.
It’s extremely common and, generally speaking, is when you haven’t been able to go for a poo for a while.
According to guidance published by the NHS, you are constipated if you:
- Haven’t been able to pass any stools at least three times in the space of a week.
- Your poo is large and dry, hard or lumpy
- You are straining or in pain when you have a poo.
When you suffer from constipation there tends to be a lot of gas in the bowel that can’t be expelled properly, which can make you feel bloated too.
Pre-menstrual bloating is common, and this is due to changes in hormone levels.
In the build-up to a period, the surge in the hormone progesterone tends to relax everything in the body so the bowel becomes much more sluggish, and less likely to push the motions through and out the other end.
It’s also the reason why women get constipated during pregnancy.
Bloating can also be a symptom of some specific gut health problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), characterised by stomach cramping, constipation or diarrhoea, or alternating between both.
Why do we suffer with constipation?
Our genes control how we react to body changes.
For instance, some women are more sensitive than others to fluctuations in hormones that lead to bloating and constipation during their menstrual cycle.
Stress also has an effect.
When we’re stressed and anxious, we often turn to unhealthy comfort food, which takes longer to digest.
We’re also less likely to be active, which slows down the action of the bowel, leading to constipation. In some people, stress directly slows down the activity of the bowel.
The most common causes of constipation are:2
- Not eating enough fibre – such as fruit, vegetables and cereals.
- Not drinking enough fluids.
- Not moving around enough and spending long periods sitting or lying around.
- Being less active and not exercising.
- Often ignoring the urge to go to the toilet.
- Changing your diet or daily routine.
- A side effect of medicine.
- Stress, anxiety or depression.
- Constipation is also common during pregnancy and for up to six weeks after giving birth.
It’s possible for people to experience one or more of these symptoms to various different effects when they are constipated.
Medication and constipation
Constipation may sometimes be caused by taking medication. Common types of medication that can cause constipation include:3
- Aluminium antacids (medicine to treat indigestion).
- Antiepileptics (medicine to treat epilepsy).
- Antipsychotics (medicine to treat schizophrenia and other mental health conditions).
- Calcium supplements.
- Opiate painkillers, such as codeine and morphine.
- Diuretics (water tablets).
- Iron supplements.
Pregnancy and constipation
Around 2 in every 5 women experience constipation during the early stages of being pregnant.
It happens during pregnancy because your body produces more of the female hormone progesterone, which acts as a muscle relaxant.4
The bowel normally moves stools and waste to the anus via a process called peristalsis.
This is when the muscles that line the bowel contract and relax in a rippling motion.
Increased progesterone makes it more difficult for the bowel muscles to contract and therefore more difficult to move waste products along.
Handpicked content: What does fibre do?
How long is too long to be constipated?
Generally speaking, because our bodies are different (bowel movements included) not everybody’s poo frequency is exactly the same.
Some people go once a day, twice a day or every other day; our toilet routines all vary.
However, if you’ve not been able to go for a poo for more than three days in a row, then you may be constipated.5
And if you’re unable to pass wind, have a tummy ache and are bloated too, then you should get it checked out by your GP.
These symptoms are all signs of a bowel obstruction.
When this happens, your faeces prevents blood from flowing into your colon, which causes stomach pain—and possibly tears— in your bowel.
- Constipation is extremely common; it’s when you haven’t been able to go for a poo at least three times in the space of a week
- Numerous things can cause constipation, including not eating enough fibre or drinking enough fluids
- Certain medication and early stage pregnancy can also cause constipation too
11 constipation remedies
Being constipated can make you feel uncomfortable, depending on how long you’ve been experiencing it for, and potentially give you tummy ache.
It can also make you feel bloated and possibly sick as well.
Fortunately, there are lots of things you can try to get things moving again, like the home remedies for constipation listed below:
- Eat more fibre. It produces gas, but also keeps the bowel moving – most of us don’t eat enough fibre, so up your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables and wholegrain foods.
- Add some wheat bran, oats or linseed to your daily diet. They can also help get your bowel moving again. Oats are loaded with soluble fibre, which allows more water to remain in the stool, making it softer and larger and easier to pass.6 Meanwhile, wheat bran helps constipation by also increasing stool volume, the rate of bowel movement and frequency.7
- Drink lots of liquid, but not fizzy or alcoholic drinks. Also, eat slowly and don’t talk while eating, to avoid swallowing excess air.
- Keep stress under control.
- Exercise more and limit caffeine. Try psyllium husks, which act as a gentle laxative, or friendly bacteria to help regulate gas production. (For more insight read, ‘Why exercise is good for your gut.’)
- One of the best ways to ease symptoms after a meal is with a tea. Peppermint is known as an anti-acid and a digestive aid, while chamomile is a great stress soother.
- Follow a regular routine. Going to the toilet at a similar time every day and giving yourself plenty of time to use the toilet can potentially help you get back into a rhythm when it comes to your toilet habits.8
- To make it easier for you to poo, try resting your feet on a low stool while going to the toilet. If possible, raise your knees above your hips.
- If you feel the urge to have a poo, don’t ignore it. This may lead to a delay in your bowel movement, which is counterproductive when it comes to trying to establish regularity.10
- Drink a hot drink in the morning, preferably coffee. The heat from the coffee can stimulate bowel movement, while the caffeine is believed to be a particularly effective way of stimulating your colon.11
- Gently massage your belly. Applying moderate pressure to and massaging your abdomen in a clockwise direction can help move your bowels. Colonic massage can also help with constipation too.12
If your constipation is persistent, difficult to live with and nothing you have tried is working, speak to your GP.
How to get instant constipation relief
Giving the natural remedies for constipation up above a go can potentially give you instant relief, but there’s no saying how soon it will be.
What’s more, it all depends on how long you’ve been constipated for, how bad your constipation is, and what your natural bowel movements are usually like.
However, if you’ve given all of the remedies above a go, and still haven’t passed anything, you could see your GP or possibly try an over the counter laxative.
Polyethylene glycol 3350 is made up of compounds that aren’t digested or absorbed by the body, causing a diarrheal effect when taken.13
But if you’re not really having much luck with natural remedies, it’s best you see your GP before you try anything else.
They will be able to advise you on the safest solution, which could be an over the counter or prescription laxative or something else.
Alternatively, you could always try a natural laxative, such as raisins, prunes or figs, which contain plenty of insoluble and soluble fibre, which have a positive duel effect on the bowel.
Soluble fibre binds with fatty acid, forming a gel, which slows the emptying time within the stomach.
When food digests more slowly, you feel full longer – which is useful if you're trying to eat less or lose weight.
Insoluble fibre forms a bulky stool that moves more quickly through the gastrointestinal tract. Insoluble fibre passes essentially unchanged through the stool.14
Handpicked content: Health benefits of figs
- There are lots of natural remedies for constipation relief
- They include exercising, eating more fibre and staying hydrated (not with fizzy or alcoholic drinks)
- Laxatives – natural, over the counter and prescription - can help with constipation too
Constipation can affect us all, and aside from not being able to poo, it can also lead to other side effects, such as bloating, tummy ache and sickness.
Where possible, try to avoid becoming constipated by eating a healthy and balanced diet, staying active, not putting off going to the toilet and being aware of what your routine is.
All of these things can help prevent you from becoming constipated.
However, sometimes it can still happen.
If you find you haven’t had any bowel movements for three consecutive days, speak to your GP or medical professional for advice on how you can get things moving again.
Last updated: 26 April 2021