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.
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:
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.
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
It’s possible for people to experience one or more of these symptoms to various different effects when they are constipated.
Constipation may sometimes be caused by taking medication. Common types of medication that can cause constipation include:3
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.
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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.
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:
If your constipation is persistent, difficult to live with and nothing you have tried is working, speak to your GP.
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.
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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
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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
Joined Holland & Barrett: Apr 2019
Masters Degree in Toxicology and BSc Hons in Medical Biochemistry
Bhupesh started his career as a Clinical Toxicologist for Public Health England, advising healthcare professionals all around the country on how to manage clinical cases of adverse exposure to supplements, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, industrial chemicals and agricultural products.
After 7 years in this role and a further year working as a drug safety officer in the pharmaceutical industry, Bhupesh joined Holland & Barrett as a Senior Regulatory Affairs Associate in 2019.