3 Surprising Causes Of Constipation

3 Surprising Causes Of Constipation

You might not want to reach for that laxative.

A Chinese man had an 11-pound bowel movement removed from his colon after having been constipated for a decade. While that’s about as extreme as it gets, we’ve all been irregular every now and again. But how do you know if you’re constipated? Generally speaking, if you have fewer than three BMs in a week, or if your stool is hard, or if it’s difficult to get out, then you’re constipated.

Constipation affects about 42 million people in the United States. Most people are familiar with natural remedies to get things moving: Eat whole grains, don’t skimp on veggies and fruits (prunes leap to mind), exercise regularly and drink plenty of water. Not surprisingly, a poor diet that mostly consists of foods like red meat, dairy and fried foods can cause constipation because they’re all low in fiber. But some reasons for why things get jammed up might surprise you:

1. Vitamins and supplements
Wait, vitamins are supposed to be good for you, right? Well, they are, but that doesn’t mean all their effects are entirely beneficial. Iron and calcium, two commonly recommended supplements (iron for anemia, calcium for bone health) are known to cause constipation. If you’re iron-deficient, experts recommend that you drink extra water and eat a fiber-rich diet while taking supplements -- and not take more than you need. For calcium, experiment with different forms – calcium carbonate and calcium citrate are two of the most common -- to see which is least constipating for you; calcium carbonate is usually the most.

2. Depression
When you’re depressed, your mood is low and your bowels are slow. Some studies have shown that constipated people experience depression at rates three to four times higher than normal. Bear in mind that researchers aren’t sure if depression causes constipation, constipation causes depression or some combination of the two, only that there seems to be a link: Poor eating habits and lack of exercise due to depression may cause constipation; it may be a side effect of certain antidepressants; people may simply perceive constipation (along with any other pain or negative feeling) more when they're depressed; or they may be physiologically related or caused by another condition, such as hypothyroidism.

3. Laxatives
Some experts believe that overuse of laxatives can lead to the very condition for which you’ve taken them in the first place. Laxative overuse or abuse doesn’t exactly cause constipation, but it can lead to dependency –- meaning you can’t go without them. Stimulant laxatives, such as Ex-Lax, are most likely to lead to constipation via laxative dependency. Once you’re dependent, it’s like getting on a carousel: You take laxatives, you can’t poop, so you take more laxatives. Naysayers suggest that chronic laxative users may have unrealistic expectations about how often they should go, or may have another underlying cause that laxatives can’t treat. Bottom line: Don’t overdo over-the-counter solutions; use them in conjunction with lifestyle changes (diet, proper hydration and exercise). As with any chronic condition, see your doctor if you can’t find relief.

Related: Know the Signs of Constipation 

Medically reviewed in August 2019.

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