It's not considered polite conversation, but constipation is a fact of life for many. For some people, it's an occasional inconvenience, but for others it's a chronic condition. To understand why a person becomes constipated in the first place, it helps to understand how the bowels function.

After you eat, your food passes through the stomach and into your intestines, where muscular contractions help move food along the digestive tract. It then begins to form into stool. The large bowel, or the main portion of your intestine, is where most of the water and salt in this waste mixture is reabsorbed into your body. What's left moves further along into the rectum, where it's stored until it's ready to pass out of the body. Ideally, just the right amount of water is pulled out of the waste material in the large intestine, leaving a stool that's soft and passed quickly and easily. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen.

The precise causes of constipation can be many, but there are a few reliable culprits. Dietary issues are common, particularly lack of fiber. Fiber—found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains—is not digested by the body. In the intestine it dissolves in water, taking on a soft, pliable texture that helps stools pass much more quickly and easily. Some simple ways to up your fiber intake include adding dried fruit to your morning cereal, switching out ice cream for an apple after dinner, and replacing one or two meat meals with entrees made of beans. Another common dietary cause of constipation is dehydration. It stands to reason that if you don't ingest enough fluids, there won't be enough fluids in your digestive tract to provide your stools with a comfortable, easy passage.

Sometimes the problem isn't diet, but lack of exercise. The bowels rely on muscles to function properly, and being sedentary can diminish muscle tone in your abdominal area. This can slow down the digestive process and cause stools to linger too long in your system. The longer the stool sits, the more water is drawn out of it. This is also why laxative overuse can cause constipation. Regular laxative use causes the bowel muscles to become lazy and less effective at moving stool. Laxatives can also damage nerves in the bowel, making it harder for you to push out stool.

Finally, your habits can contribute to constipation. Some people resist defecating in a public toilet or at work where they believe others can hear them. If you routinely ignore the urge to move your bowels, your stool can sit too long and dry out in the process. Doctors recommend that patients listen to their bodies and move their bowels when they feel the urge.




Cancer Research UK,

Mayo Clinic,