Updated: Jun 12, 2019
I find that most people are unaware of what is 'normal' and what is 'abnormal' as far as their digestive health.
I think this is due to the embarrassment people have when talking about digestive health - which is unfortunate, because usually a few simple changes can fix longstanding problems like irregularity, slow digestion and constipation.
Are You Regular?
'Normal' is generally classified as having one bowel movement per day. A healthy person can have up to three bowel movements a day and still be in the normal range of function. If you have more than 3 bowel movements per day, or do not have at least one, then your bowel movements are considered 'irregular'.
Your bowel movements may also be considered irregular if they are too loose, too hard or painful.
In this article we will focus primarily on constipation. Constipation is when you have a bowel movement less than once per day, but it is also when the stool is hard and you feel like not everything has been eliminated from your colon.
Causes of Constipation
This is by far the most common cause of constipation. Your body will take needed moisture from your stool to stay hydrated if you are not drinking enough water. Aim for 8 glasses of water every day.
Too Much Caffeine
Many patients notice an improvement of digestive function after they reduce or eliminate coffee consumption. This is because too much caffeine taxes the liver and disrupts normal stomach acid production.
Caffeine is also a diuretic, drinking coffee throughout the day can quickly lead to dehydration.
Try to taper off caffeine over the course of a few weeks as quitting caffeine abruptly can cause digestive upset, migraines, irritability, anxiety and sleeplessness.
Too Much Animal Protein
Excessive animal protein can be a burden on your liver and will consequently decrease digestive motility (how quickly food moves through your digestive tract). High animal protein/high fat diets are extremely popular at the moment, but they do not work for everyone.
There are those who thrive on diets like Keto and Paleo and there are those who, no matter how hard they try to force their body to use fat and protein as primary fuel sources, do not thrive.
Consider any symptoms you are having as potential signs that your diet may not be right for you.
Stomach pain, low energy, trouble sleeping, weight gain, mood swings, irritability, anxiety, constipation, food sensitivities, migraines, and diarrhea are all potential signs that your body is not thriving on your diet.
Mineral deficiency is common in those with constipation. Poor diet, stress and chronic illness can tax the body and drain it of vital minerals.
When your body is stressed either biochemically (with a bacterial infection, autoimmune condition or food allergy) or psychologically (through past trauma, toxic relationships, or an unhealthy work environment) your kidneys excrete magnesium, which can lead to magnesium deficiency.
It is best not to guess what vitamins and minerals you may be deficient in based on symptom lists online.
Functional medicine testing can determine what vitamins and minerals you are deficient in and the best way to replete your minerals. Keep in mind minerals and vitamins have complex relationship with one another, if you take too much of one vitamin, you may be causing an intrinsic deficiency of another.
A functional medicine practitioner can give you the best form of each vitamin or mineral so your body can absorb those vitamins optimally.
Different forms of vitamins make a major difference in efficacy. For example, magnesium citrate is typically used for constipation issues and general magnesium repletion. Another form of magnesium - magnesium malate - is more suited for metabolic health and energy production. Magnesium threonate is best for supporting nerve and brain health.
Stress / Sympathetic Dominance
Many of us are under the strain of near constant stress. Workplace, personal and psychological stress can inflict as much internal damage as an infection, illness or injury can.
In fact, while many biological strains (like an infection) are temporary, persistent stress can wreak havoc for years or even decades on your body.
Your body has a natural tendency towards healing - a fever is your body trying to kill a foreign body (like a virus), the redness and swelling that happens when you have a cut allows blood (and white blood cells) to speed to the source of the injury and destroy infectious material.
When you are stressed, you are sending a message to your body that all of your energy must focus on the sympathetic (fight or flight) response - that there is an urgent threat and that you need your heart pumping and your adrenaline high so you can run or fight. It is also sending the message that you do not have time to do the parasympathetic (rest and repair) jobs like maintaining your immune response, circadian rhythm balance and proper digestive function.
How to Fix Constipation
1. Stay Hydrated
Drink water throughout the day. Start your morning with 16oz of water with the juice of 1/4 of lemon. This can help prime your digestive system for the rest of the day. Try to drink at least 8 glasses of water per day.
Eating lots of fruits and vegetables will also help you stay hydrated.
2. Cut Down on Caffeine
Taper off caffeine slowly. If you are used to multiple cups of coffee per day, try cutting down a half cup at a time with a few days in between.
When you are down to just one cup per day, you can switch to Matcha green tea.
The chemical composition of this tea can help reduce or eliminate caffeine withdrawal symptoms.
3. Functional Medicine Assessment
A functional medicine appointment can rule out conditions that may cause digestive problems and assess your true nutrient and mineral levels. Functional medicine testing goes beyond the typical testing you would get at your annual checkup.
Functional medicine testing looks into the function of your organs, how well you digest proteins, if you have a viral infection, if you have antibodies associated with an allergy or an autoimmune condition and your thyroid and adrenal function.
In tough cases of chronic digestive problems there is usually liver problems (like toxicity, fatty liver disease, or strain from endotoxins). There also may be underlying conditions (like Ulcerative Colitis or Crohn's Disease) - with proper biochemical support and a clear picture of how your body is functioning, it is common to have a complete resolution of symptoms.
Read more about Diagnostic Testing
An important part of a functional medicine evaluation is to determine if your digestive health may be affected by toxins. Many of my patients with chronic or complex health conditions have an underlying toxicity problem.
This can be due to exposure to heavy metals from cooking pans or contaminated drinking water, makeup, high mercury fish intake, contaminated supplements, silver fillings, non-organic produce, hair products, and more.
Read more about Toxicity
4. Eat a Whole Foods, Plant Based Diet
Fast, processed and low quality foods all make it harder for our bodies to digest our food. Each meal should ideally have a serving of protein, fat and carbohydrate.
Dietary fiber from fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains can be very useful in promoting regularity. Excess refined sugar, caffeine, dairy and gluten should be avoided.
Food sensitivities can cause bloating, stomach pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea and cramping but also can have no digestive symptoms at all. It is common for those with food sensitivities to suffer from headaches, migraines, brain fog, mood swings, weight gain and fatigue.
Read more about Food Sensitivities.
5. Take Care of Yourself
Stress is a toxin. In whatever form you are experiencing it, try to readjust your life. This may involve cutting off toxic friends or family members or seeking therapy for past trauma. It may mean making time a few times a week for yoga or barre classes, or seeing your friends more.
It may mean saying 'no' much more often to make sure you get the sleep and relaxation you need to live a healthy life.
There is pressure to have the candle burning at both ends, to always be the one who works overtime and to be the last one to bed. This will take a toll on your body and your health. You deserve to take the time and effort necessary to nourish your health.
Taking steps today to take care of yourself is much easier than trying to rebuild your health after it has eroded due to years of poor lifestyle and dietary choices. Don't forget - you are worth making your health a top priority!
The Multi-Faceted Approach of Functional Medicine
Functional medicine is uniquely suited to address complex health problems. In conventional medicine, the diagnosis signals the end of treatment - in functional medicine, the diagnosis is only the beginning of clinical inquiry.
Many complex symptoms and conditions are significantly influenced by dietary and lifestyle factors. Dietary changes can completely remove rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, targeted supplementation can 'correct' a genetic predisposition toward diabetes, and reducing inflammation can drastically cut heart disease risk.
If your irregularity is a long term problem, or if you have other symptoms or conditions that you do not feel have adequately been addressed then a functional medicine appointment may be right for you.
If you would like to speak to me to ask questions about functional medicine, chronic illness or how I can help you, please schedule a Free 15 Minute Consultation or call or text my office at 913-728-5291.
If you think that you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. No action or inaction should be taken based solely on the contents of this information. Nor should you ever delay seeking medical advice or treatment due to the information contained on this Website.