Constipation occurs when you have fewer than three bowel movements in a week. More than 4 million adults in the U.S. suffer from regular constipation. (Sonnenberg, 1989)
It can also have accompanying symptoms such as gas and bloating. Older people, and people who don’t exercise regularly, are more likely to suffer from constipation.
Different types of food and medications can cause constipation. Below are 15 different triggers known to cause constipation.
1. Food Containing Gluten
Gluten is a form of protein found in food sources such as:
- Graham flour
For some people, eating gluten-containing food can cause constipation, particularly if you have a gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is one form of gluten intolerance. It is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the digestive tracts, causing severe harm.
Chronic constipation is a common symptom of Celiac disease.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) are two other conditions when gluten can cause constipation. If you think you have Celiac disease, you will need to have gluten in your system to be tested for this condition. If your doctor has ruled out Celiac disease, you may wish to limit your gluten intake to see if this relieves your constipation.
If you drink alcohol in large amounts at a time, it can cause constipation. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, which means it increases the amount of water you lose through your urine. This, in turn, causes dehydration. You can avoid dehydration by drinking alcohol in moderation and making sure you drink enough water on daily. The recommended amount is eight 8-ounce glasses. You should drink more if you are working out.
3. Refined Grains
Refined or processed grains — and the products made from them — can cause constipation in some people. Examples of refined grains include:
- White bread
- White pasta
- Some cereals
- White rice
- All-purpose flour
- Enriched flour
Unlike whole grains, refined grains do not contain the bran and germs parts. These are removed during the refining process. These parts of the whole grain contain fiber, which adds bulk to the stool and helps with its transition. If you are experiencing constipation, you may wish to replace your refined grains with whole grains to help increase your daily fiber intake.
It is important to note that although whole grains are beneficial for most people, even they can result in constipation for some people. (Muller-Lissner, 2005)
If you suffer from chronic constipation and consume a high-fiber diet, you may wish to reduce your fiber intake to see if this can provide relief.
4. Dairy Products
Milk and dairy products can be another source of constipation. Infants and young children may be particularly at risk due to a possible sensitivity to proteins — like lactose — found in cow’s milk. A 2008 review, published in Nutrition and Dietetics, found evidence to support a link between cow’s milk and chronic functional constipation in children. (Crowley, 2008)
If you or your children suffer from constipation and you drink cow’s milk regularly, you may want to replace it with soy milk.
5. Fried and Fast Food
Eating large portions of fried or fast food — or eating fried or fast food frequently — can increase your risk of constipation. This is mainly because these types of food tend to be low in fiber and high in fat, which can slow down digestion. You should avoid fast and fried foods such as:
- Fried fish
- Fried chicken
- French fries
- Ice cream
Sodium found in these foods may also cause constipation. When you each too much salt, your body attempts to compensate for it by drawing up extra water from your intestines. Although this brings your body’s salt concentration back to normal, it can result in a dryer stool which takes a longer time to pass through the bowel. To avoid constipation, replace fried and fast foods with salads and fresh vegetables and fruit.
6. Red Meat
Red meat contains very little fiber. This makes your stool more compact — slowing down the time it takes to pass from your body. Eating a lot of red meat may also indirectly reduce your fiber intake. The latter can be a particular problem if you tend to fill your plate with large amounts of red meat, limiting the amount of whole grains and fiber-rich vegetables and legumes you eat in each sitting.
Additionally, unlike some other types of meat, such as poultry and seafood, red meat also has a higher fat content. This can also increase your risk of constipation. You can reduce your risk of constipation by replacing red meat with fatty fish and protein and fiber-rich meat alternatives such as soy, lentils, beans, and peas.
7. Frozen Dinners
While they are easy and convenient, frozen dinners can be a cause of constipation, particularly if you eat them regularly. Ready-made frozen meals are typically high in fat, high in sodium, and contain many preservatives and additives. They are also generally low in fiber. The processing of ingredients in frozen dinners reduces their fiber content, which can lead to slow and difficult bowel movements.
Persimmons are edible fruits native to Eastern Asia. There are several varieties of this fruit. Some are sweet, while others have a more bitter flavor. Bitter fruits have a higher tannin content. Tannin is believed to reduce intestinal secretions in some people and thus slow down bowel movements. (Sun, 2014)
For this reason, if you are experiencing constipation, you should avoid bitter persimmons.
9. Unripe Bananas
Unripe bananas can cause constipation (whereas ripe bananas can help alleviate constipation). Ripe bananas help to keep your bowel movements regular because of their pectin content. Pectin is a form of dietary plant fiber that helps to bulk up the stool. However, unripe bananas have not yet begun to produce pectin. This makes them difficult to digest and can cause constipation, particularly in children.
If you suffer from constipation or IBS, you may want to limit your chocolate intake.
Although chocolate contains caffeine and is a polyphenolic food — which is helpful for the microbiome and digestive health — there are many anecdotal reports that regular or high chocolate intake causes or worsens constipation symptoms.
This may be due to the low fiber and high-fat content, or the overall makeup of the individual’s diet.
11. Calcium and Iron Supplements
Some vitamins and minerals may cause constipation. This is particularly true of calcium and iron supplements.
Calcium and iron are both essential nutrients. But if you have too much of them, or they are taken from the wrong source, they can make it difficult to pass bowel movements. You can reduce the risk of constipation from these supplements by avoiding antacids made from calcium carbonate.
You only need to take an iron supplement if your doctor has diagnosed you with an iron deficiency. Some types of iron supplements minimize the risk of constipation, meaning it’s best to do some research to find out which is your best option.
Pastries, cakes, and other baked goods all tend to contribute to constipation because they typically contain refined flour, refined sugar, and very little fiber.
That’s a triple whammy of negative ingredients for constipation sufferers. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, look for healthier options like bran muffins, carrot cake, cereal, or fruit bars.
Cheese is another in the list of potential constipation-causing foods, particularly if your diet is also low in fiber and high in fat. This is because cheese contains no fiber, and it is also high in fat. If you already have frequent constipation, eating excessive cheese can make it worse.
Many people find coffee to stimulate bowel movements rather than cause constipation. However, coffee is a powerful diuretic, and in some people, particularly those who drink a lot of coffee throughout the day, it may result in constipation.
Some medications are necessary for certain medical conditions. Constipation is a common side effect of some groups of medications. These include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Of all drugs, this group is the most common cause of constipation. NSAIDs are often consumed daily. They include medications such as naproxen and ibuprofen.
- Antihistamines: These are over-the-counter medications used to treat allergies. They include Zyrtec and Benadryl.
- Tricyclic antidepressants: As well as depression, tricyclic antidepressants are used to treat bipolar disorder, insomnia, and sometimes chronic pain. This group includes drugs such as amitriptyline and nortriptyline are also known as anticholinergics, which means they cause a dry mouth. They also increase the risk of constipation.
- Hypertension medications: This will generally depend on which blood pressure medication you are taking. But beta-blockers and calcium channel blockers do tend to cause constipation.
- Anti-nausea medications: Medications designed to alleviate nausea, such as ondansetron, are often prescribed after surgery or during chemotherapy. They are very effective for alleviating nausea, but they can cause constipation.
Constipation is an unpleasant condition that can be debilitating when it is prolonged. Fortunately, in most cases, if you suffer from constipation, you can alleviate it by making some dietary and lifestyle changes.
You can begin by improving the health of your digestive system by eliminating foods and medications (when possible) that cause constipation, like those listed above. You can also prevent constipation by drinking plenty of water and exercising on a regular basis.