Is Your Fast-Paced Lifestyle Making You Constipated?
In the south, we like to call it ‘stove up.’ Chronic constipation can leave you bloated, heavy, grumpy, head-achy and even depressed…the opposite of sexy. We live in a fast-paced world (and it’s only getting faster); as a pelvic physical therapist I have some interesting insights about what can contribute to constipation for people who are on the go (but, not going). Read on, dear reader, read on…
The ‘Butt Gripper’
Have you ever noticed someone walking and it looks like they are trying to clench a pencil between their cheeks? ‘Butt-grippers’ over-activate their gluteal muscles which can lead to a tucked pelvis, shortened stride with quicker steps, and occasional toeing-out of the feet. The pelvis is a common area to physically hold stress. Over-tensing the gluteal muscles will cause increased activation of the pelvic floor muscles which are CRUCIAL in interpreting and communicating pelvic reflexes to poop. Poop reflexes? YES!!
Have you ever noticed that you have an urge to have a bowel movement, but after about a minute of attempting to ‘clench it off’ the urge goes away? You have just successfully activated your recto-anal inhibitory reflex. When you sense that poop coming into the anal canal and it is not a convenient time to go, by activating the pelvic floor muscles you stimulate the RAIR reflex which causes regurgitation of poop back into the bowels buying your time.
So, let’s just say you live a stressful lifestyle and hold tension in your pelvis or have a tendency of over-engaging the pelvic floor muscles for simple tasks such as walking…can you see now how constantly doing this you might be causing constipation? If this is the case, pelvic floor relaxation will help you push the re-set button. If tuning in with your pelvic floor is difficult for you and you are not quite sure what you are feeling, a pelvic floor therapist can help you bring awareness and find coordination in these muscles for healthy poops.
The ‘Flight Catcher’
We are incredibly habitual with our bowel and bladder routines. Have you ever noticed your bowels sub-consiously put a pause on pooping when you travel? It’s wild! When I fly to teach courses I find self-acupressure techniques for constipation quite helpful as well as doing a few particular yoga poses in my hotel room. Flying can also lead to dehydration so fill up those water bottles and when you feel the urge and there is a toilet nearby, don’t delay! I know that pooping in public can be embarrassing; one of my favorite suggestions is carrying Poo Pourri spray ($5 dolla holla!). Delaying a bowel movement on a regular basis will trigger the RAIR reflex we discussed and usually makes pooping harder on the next go round (a struggle that people with constipation particularly wish to avoid).
The ‘Eating on the Runner’
I know, I know…when you have a busy week it’s SO tempting just to swing through the drive through or stop by the frozen foods section at Trader Joe’s; I get it! And occasionally, this isn’t a problem, but consistently eating quick solution meals may put you in a pinch. Let’s talk about diet and digestion, shall we?
Fiber consumption helps move poop through the gut in a timely manner and creates a stool consistency that is easier to pass. It is generally recommended that women eat 25 grams of fiber a day and men eat 38 (DeSalvo KB1, 2016). High fat, low fiber foods (dairy products, baked goods, fried and processed foods) take longer to digest and, in the case of constipation, we want to speed up that gut motility. Furthermore, frozen dinners and processed foods contain sodium (which draws the water needed for digestion from your bowel) and less fiber (which can help relieve constipation). A study showed that 77% of people improved their gut motility by increasing their fiber consumption (Christodoulides S1, 2016). It is important to note, however, that there are many factors that can cause constipation and the normal high-fiber recommendation may not help. For example, conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome may even worsen with a high-fiber diet so please consult your doctor or a nutritionist regarding your own personalized dietaryplan.
Your Nervous System
Simply speaking, your nervous system has two modes; sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). Therefor, optimal digestion takes place when you are in a relaxed state. Let’s take a little inventory of your eating routines:
Do you drink coffee in the morning and typically skip breakfast?
Do you eat lunch while in your car or sitting at your computer?
Is dinner sandwiched between after-school activities?
When taking your inventory, take into consideration what factors affect your meal habits and how you feel when you are eating. Do you feel anxious and rushed or do you feel like you really have time to appreciate the meal and all of its taste, smells and nourishment? Most Americans could sit down for a little more time with a little less distraction. It may seem impractical now, but it will help take the load off (literally)!
All right all you high-achieving people out there…we need to talk! I applaud your competence, ability to multi-task and take on the world…and,if you are constipated, it may behoove you to consider your lifestyle and a few of these questions:
Are you living on adrenaline? A nervous system that is conditioned to living in more of a sympathetic state may not have the best digestion.
Are you aware of tension holding patterns in your body? Most of us that hold tension in our pelvic region are not even aware of it until it presents a functional issue. This is something to consider…
What is your work lifestyle like? Does it involve a lot of travel? Do meetings and deadlines tend to dictate your day? Do you have time to prepare healthy food and sit and enjoy at least one meal a day without interruption? Please take into consideration the teachings and avatars of this blog and know that some simple lifestyle changes could make a big difference!
The gut is powerful. Science is catching on to the importance of the gut microbiome and it’s influence on the immune system, brain health, mood and well-being. Just know, it may seem like ‘it’s just constipation,’ but, in taking care of your gut, you are taking care of so much more. Good luck and great health!
- Article written by: Susannah Haarmann, PT, WCS, CLT
If you are a pelvic health practitioner and would like to offer essential education handouts on healing fecal incontinence, constipation and other gastrointestinal functional disorders, they have been done for you. The Bowel Book and individual handouts are available for personal clinical purchase.
Susannah is a board-certified Women's Clinical Specialist by the American Physical Therapy Association. She is a private practice owner in Asheville, North Carolina and teaches internationally in pelvic health and breast oncology rehabilitation. Susannah is an advocate of conservative treatment for pelvic health conditions and writes books and courses on pelvic health and breast cancer rehabilitation.