Constipation is the gut health problem 2 times more likely to affect women
It’s a reality dietitian Sophie Medlin seen regularly in his clinic. “While I still see a lot of men with constipation because it’s such a common problem, I see a lot more women with it,” she says.
The problem isn’t due to biological differences, as there are no structural differences in the gut, Medlin says. Instead, it’s about conditioning and lifestyle habits that mess up our frequency of toileting.
Why are women more constipated than men?
Given how intertwined our gut and brain are, our psychological and social conditioning has a huge and disturbing impact on our bowel habits, Medlin says. “There is a belief that as young children girls learn not to be smelly and dirty and they associate toileting habits with these traits which can become stressful for them.
“As women get older, there is a taboo about ‘going’ to certain places – for example, a new partner’s house or the office. This can often mean that they stop listening to the signals their body gives them to go poop and reduces the strength of those signals in the body, which means we can poop less often.
If that sounds familiar, so will the impact of stress. While “nervous pooping” is a phenomenon you may be more familiar with, many people find that they can’t go during times of worry or activity.
According to an article published in the Gastroenterol hepatology expert reviewthe epinephrine, a stress hormone, keeps blood flow away from our digestive system and can slow the movement of food through the intestine. Additionally, the body releases something called corticotrophin-releasing factor in the intestines, a hormone that slows down and inflames the intestines.
Toilet positioning is another issue for many women, according to Medlin. Ideally, we should be squatting to poop, bringing our knees up to our chest to massage our colon, but modern designs mean we don’t sit quite properly, especially women.
“Most women are too small to sit properly on the toilet in a way that actually allows their rectum to open up so they can pass stool in the easiest way possible,” says Medlin.
And then there are the gender differences in our diets. A decent fiber intake is necessary for our intestines to open regularly, and where is fiber most likely to be found? In carbohydrates – the same food group that has historically been reviled by a diet industry that targets women.
“Of course there are a lot of complexities there and some people who suffer from constipation eat a lot of these foods and still struggle. Often constipation can be part of IBS, in which case reducing fermentable carbs can really help. Other times it is due to rectile dysfunction often caused by traumatic childbirth – in these cases, which are relatively common, eating more fiber is likely to make the problem a bit worse,” says Medlin.
This is why it is always crucial to speak to your GP, as any change in stool can be a sign of other problems in your body.
Is constipation important?
For Meg*, a 26-year-old television worker, constipation has changed her life. “I have struggled for the past six years. I only poop once a week, then after about 3 weeks I have the worst stomach pains and end up having diarrhea for hours.
“It makes me so miserable – I hate trying on clothes that I can barely zip up when I’m bloated from not going for a few days. The pains often keep me from getting out and doing things I love, and I always worry that my friends think it’s just an excuse.
Meg says the doctor often gave her laxatives or told her she had IBS, but couldn’t find the root cause. “I couldn’t notice any patterns in my food, even after keeping a food diary, but I know it’s even worse when I’m stressed,” she says.
This discomfort is one of the main side effects of constipation. The feeling of fullness or frustration of not being able to go should not be dismissed. “The major problem with constipation is that it leads to bloating and discomfort. Sometimes stool can put pressure on the nerves in the pelvis and lead to stomach, leg and back pain as well as bladder problems,” says Medlin.
“In terms of long-term health issues associated with constipation, it can lead to conditions such as diverticular disease and anal fissures, hemorrhoids or hemorrhoids and problems with the colon. It can also negatively affect the colon microbiome, which only makes your digestion worse.
How to relieve and avoid constipation
Use a stool
To counter high toilet seats that don’t make pooping easier, put your feet up on a stool when you’re on the toilet. “Make sure your knees are at 90 degrees so you can open your rectum effectively,” she says.
Eat poo-friendly foods
“Kiwis are associated with complete spontaneous evacuation, which is essentially a bowel movement that empties the colon, rather than feeling like you’re holding it in,” says Medlin. She suggests two a day for those who find it difficult to go.
“Chia seeds and chia pudding, in particular, are great ways to prevent and relieve constipation,” she adds. When the chia seeds are soaked, they absorb the water which creates the gelatinous consistency of the chia pudding. This water moves through the intestines to help loosen stools.
get rid of shame
If you’re not comfortable pooping in certain places and it’s keeping you from going when you need to, it’s time to ask yourself why. Damping your biological signals makes constipation worse.
Talk to your doctor
“Relieving constipation seems relatively easy when you know you can buy laxatives to do it. But if you find yourself buying laxatives long term, it is very important to talk to a doctor or dietician who can help you. It’s really important to research why you’re having constipation, especially if it’s new, because a change in your bowel habits can be a sign of something more concerning,” says Medlin.