I am often asked by the patients in my practice whether constipation directly causes weight gain. It can be a difficult question to comment on as the answer is a lot more complicated than a simple yes or no! I see a lot of patients who are trying to lose weight and who are also constipated, but I also see people who have regular bowel movements and still have size issues. In my mind, constipation does not necessarily cause people to gain weight specifically, but there are instead a range of factors (such as those discussed below) which play a key role in constipation, and may also contribute significantly to an individual's weight.
Gut flora and constipation
The bacteria which populate our digestive systems may play a key role in weight management. There is evidence that the composition of your gut bacteria and your size are tied. A study on mice showed that obese mice had a significantly different set of bacteria in their gastrointestinal tract than lean mice. The study then swapped bacteria between obese mice and lean mice and saw that the lean mice started to put on weight, even though they were eating the same thing.
Further research shows that certain methane-producing bacteria slows down the transit of food through the gut. This led to the idea that as food moves slower through your gut, your body has more time to extract nutrients. This makes a lot of sense, because we know that sluggish bowel movements means that the colon extracts too much water (making stools hard and dry), so it stands to reason to say that the rest of the gut has more time to extract calories.
So, constipation can be a sign of an imbalance in gut flora and topping up your levels of friendly bacteria (probiotics) has a positive effect on the breakdown of food and absorption of nutrients. They also aid in the production of substances in the bowel which are required for healthy bowel function. Probiotics can also reduce feelings of bloating and heaviness in the digestive system as well, which can give you a lighter feeling and reduce the appearance of stomach bloating (read more about the benefits of probiotics).
Fix it with Fibre
The best sources of fibre are plant foods, so increasing the levels of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet is a great way of increasing your daily intake. Wholegrains (those grains with the least amount of processing, such as quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice and oats) are also fantastic source. When it comes to constipation, fibre increases the bulk and softness of the bowel movement, making the motions easier to pass through the digestive system and to expel. Fibre not only moves food through the digestive system but fills you up too, so adding soluble and insoluble fibre to your meals increases the feeling of satisfaction after a meal and stops you snacking later on.
Water, Water Everywhere!
This seems like an obvious one, but many people simply do not drink enough water. It’s really important that, if you are going to increase fibre in your diet as suggested above, you concurrently increase your water intake to keep things moving! On a physiological level, adequate hydration is incredibly important. Almost every cellular process in the body requires water and it is important for a myriad of processes from brain function and mood to yes, you guessed it, regular bowel movements! People who suffer from constipation often complain that their bowel motions are dry or difficult to pass. Increasing your water intake is one of the easiest ways of improving the consistency of bowel motions. It is also one of the best ways to help with weight loss as often a feeling of hunger can actually be a sign of dehydration. Having a large glass of water can stave off the hunger for a little while longer and stop you snacking when you really don’t need to. All weight loss programmes should include adequate hydration as a key component!
Get the wheels in motion!
Exercise strengthens, tones and improves overall body muscle tone and, believe it or not, the bowel contains layers of muscle too! In fact, the movement of waste matter through the bowel involves peristalsis, a contraction and relaxation of the smooth muscles lining the gut wall. Exercise helps to stimulate this process and leads to more regular and consistent bowel movements. Walking, swimming, dancing and exercises such as yoga and pilates are fantastic for relieving constipation and once again, have the added benefit of boosting the metabolism and improving weight loss.
Assess the thyroid
One condition which often causes constipation and weight gain is hypothyroidism. This condition involves an underactive thyroid- the gland which governs many important mechanisms, including our metabolism. Our metabolism governs all the chemical processes which are required for life including our ability to burn calories and produce energy. Having an under-functioning thyroid can reduce energy production as well as the number of calories the body uses up, therefore contributing to weight gain (and an inability to lose that extra weight!), sluggish bowels and increased sensitivity to cold. Ruling this condition out is important, although you may need to visit an integrative therapist rather than a doctor, as hypothyroidism is a complicated condition which is often not picked up in blood tests.
The relationship between constipation and weight gain is complicated, but it is being researched and studied. Taking a good probiotic and working on the other factors which contribute to constipation such as those discussed above, all help to address both. Focusing on a plan which tackles these key areas will greatly improve digestion and will also have a positive effect on weight loss. Try incorporating them into your diet and lifestyle today!