Constipation is such a widespread health issue, yet many people go their entire life thinking it is something normal, even when they feel unwell or downright sick. But having occasional, irregular bowel movements, insufficient and simply uneasy is definitely not normal. The key word for describing intestinal transit should be regularity and ease. A healthy body should process food in a certain amount of time and eliminate waste material in such a way that we do not experience any discomfort or difficulty. Bowel movements that are not regular and easy are generally not in the normal range.
From my experience, we may be suffering from constipation and not even know it. How can we tell? Often by a feeling of unwell accompanying our not necessarily infrequent, but insufficient bathroom trips. And, just as important, by the strong relief we may experience after taking a trip to the bathroom. Malaise or a noticeable feeling of unwell generally preceding bowel movements may be one of many signs we are not going to the bathroom as often as we should and we may be suffering from constipation side effects.
Constipation can present itself in many ways, not just infrequent bowel movements. According to its definition, constipation is all of the following:
1) The total absence of bowel movements (which can constitute a medical emergency after 10-14 days).
2) Infrequent bowel movements (with 1 day to 1 week distance between them).
3) Incomplete bowel movements (we feel as if we haven’t passed everything out of our system).
4) Hard stools, often segmented into small, hard lumps (not stimulating peristalsis, they cause constipation in return).
5) Bowel movements that are difficult to pass, not necessarily hard, though this is the most common trait.
6) Dry stools (caused by not drinking enough water, witholding the urge etc.)
When we don’t go to the bathroom as often as we should we may not feel very well. I used to have a bowel movement every 2 or 3 days, but didn’t feel well at all, unlike now when I enjoy daily trips to the bathroom and feel great. I would withhold the urge to go to the bathroom for so long that I would suppress it altogether for another full day. The whole experience was then difficult and energy consuming because I had to strain to pass out hard, large stools and this is part of the reason I developed hemorrhoids at a young age. But that wasn’t all.
After having dealt with constipation in its various forms for most of my adult life, I came to realize there is more to it than simply not having daily bowel movements. There are things nobody tells you about, but which can reveal you are not enjoying normal intestinal transit. Feeling unwell is one of the least known health effect of constipation, but one I would deal with constantly. Here are all of the signs and symptoms I experienced when I was dealing with constipation:
1) Feeling of unwell, malaise or fatigue. One of the main functions of bowel movements is to eliminate waste material from the body. When we don’t go to the bathroom as often as we should, our body retains toxins and we start experiencing the alternative side effects of constipation. If I didn’t have bowel movements for more than 2 days, I would start feeling unwell, somewhat tired and simply lacked energy. Somehow, the closer I got to having a bowel movement, the worse I felt, as if toxins were accumulating and my body was struggling to eliminate them. The moment I had a bowel movement, my malaise would just disappear and I would feel normal again.
2) Dizziness or lightheadedness. If I didn’t have a bowel movement for several days, I would get lightheaded or slightly dizzy. It was nothing serious, but noticeable enough to get me to worry because I hadn’t heard of anybody experiencing lightheadedness, which is a form of dizziness, when going to the bathroom. Again, as soon as I was finished, the symptom would just disappear.
3) Nausea. There were several occasions when I felt nauseated when I had to pass a stool. This might have been from the effort, the strain, from the dehydration (a big cause for constipation) or from the fact that my body hadn’t eliminated waste material and toxins for too long. The sensation only lasted for the duration of my bathroom trip, then I just recovered, feeling refreshed all of a sudden.
4) Cold sweats. Although rare, I would experience cold sweats from time to time when having a bowel movement, but they would disappear quickly after and this puzzled me greatly.
5) Feeling of heaviness, bloating and overall discomfort. Being irregular often made me feel heavy and bloated and I would start feeling better only after having a bowel movement.
Important. These symptoms are strange as they are, but some of them are not usually common for constipation. In fact, chronic fatigue associated with the gastrointestinal tract in general is believed to be a result of blood loss either in the upper or in the lower gastrointestinal tract and indicate bleeding caused by injuries, cancer etc. If you notice either light or dark red streaks of blood or significant mucus in the stools, it is important to address your doctor immediately and have the mater investigated to rule out more serious health issues. Similar symptoms may be caused by irritable bowel syndrome. Again, addressing a doctor for adequate diagnosis is crucial for a good quality of life.
Why does constipation make you feel sick? In my case, the feeling of unwell, the lack of energy, tiredness and general malaise were all a result of chronic constipation. Chronic constipation means that normal bowel movements are delayed, but this doesn’t mean our digestion is too. So our body keeps processing the food we eat (because we do continue to eat). Our digestive system continues to extract the nutrients it needs from food and sends the rest (waste material, dead bacteria, toxins) to be eliminated. But we don’t eliminate them because of constipation.
While our intestines may reabsorb part of the water in our stools (causing them to become dry and hard, worsening constipation further), the waste material remains, growing more compact and, at the same time, more difficult to eliminate. So toxins, waste and bacteria keep accumulating in our system and, naturally, make us feel not so good. The feeling of unwell may translate into feeling tired, lacking energy or experiencing malaise. These symptoms tend to disappear or lessen only after we manage to have a bowel movement, but energy boosts will not occur just because we finally went to the bathroom.
Moreover, treating constipation is, for most of us, a trial and error thing which means we might make it worse before we learn what works for us in terms of amounts and types of foods, nutrients etc. Doctors advise us to eat more dietary fiber and drink more water. This is helpful because fiber adds bulk to stools, meaning they increase in size, stimulating the intestines to contract to eliminate them, while water helps prevent them from drying out and hurting us. However, taking in too much fiber either from our diet or from supplements for too long can make stools too big and harder to pass, not actually relieving chronic, long term constipation and possibly worsening hemorrhoids (see what Foods to Eat and to Avoid for Hemorrhoids). Too much fiber may cause an imbalance, not allowing our digestive system to regulate itself properly with all the necessary nutrients. The key is balance in our eating habits.
What we aren’t being told is that aside from a moderate fiber intake we also need sufficient fats. This doesn’t mean going for the fattiest, heaviest foods we can think of because this will cause other problems (weight gain, clogged arteries, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes). It means ensuring we eat a normal, healthy amounf of fats every day to:
1) Help digestion and ensure the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K).
2) Support bone and muscle health, cardiovascular health and good immunity (fats allow us to absorb vitamin D, calcium, magnesium).
3) Encourage a normal gastrocolic response (motility or involuntary contraction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestinal tract) which promotes bowel regularity and encourages constipation relief.
4) Normalize our stools so they are soft, not very voluminous and easy to pass.
See the wonderful 11 Benefits of Eating Fats.
The key word here is moderation. Our body tends to absorb the fats we eat almost entirely, but dietary fiber partially prevents the absorption of fats and fat soluble vitamins. This means that we may only benefit from our fat and fiber intake if they are moderate and balanced. Too much of any of them is unhealthy. I find small amounts of animal fats help me a lot, but I also regularly eat chocolate and extravirging olive oil (because it is cold pressed and thus not extracted with the help of toxic, potentially cancer-causing solvents). As for fiber, I get enough of it when enjoying a serving of chickpeas or mushrooms at lunch and a generous helping of broccoli or green beans at dinner.
What I found also helped me greatly was taking vitamin C and magnesium dietary supplements. These are nutrients I need in greater amounts than my diet can provide. Magnesium has done wonders for my muscles and has been a great help for me in dealing with both stress and bad moods, while vitamin C has a sort of cleansing effect, helping regulate my intestinal transit time. Many aspects of my life have improved significantly with just these two nutrients, digestive health being the most noticeable.
Conclusion. Learning to balance what and how we eat is pivotal if we want to relieve constipation and not have to feel sick, tired or unwell as a result of it. I learnt to balance my intake of fats, fiber, carbohydrates and protein because all of them play a part in dealing with constipation. I learnt that I had to have a sufficient intake of healthy fats to have easy, soft and regular stools. Moderate amounts of dietary fiber also helped keep me regular, while balancing my protein and carbohydrate intake prevented my constipation from reoccurring. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced constipation or a feeling of unwell for a long time now.