So far, we've talked a lot about the causes of constipation, and have looked at some natural remedies to help relieve it (read about those here), but it's also important to go back to basics and look at the way you eat, and when - as these factors may be contributing to your constipation.
We develop the majority of our eating habits and patterns as children, so now as adults we may not realise that they are wrong or perhaps not right for us because they have become second nature and automatic.
Everybody is different though. So for some of us, the standard rules of 'eating three meals a day' or 'starting the day with a good breakfast' may not necessarily be right for you personally. Perhaps you are someone who needs to eat something small but every few hours, or perhaps you like a glass of juice in the morning and will then have your first meal mid-morning.
Either way, there are no set rules as to how and when you should eat, but finding what’s right for you and your digestive system is vital.
Too busy to eat?
One of the biggest problems I see is when people 'run on empty' and they don't eat for long periods of time. This could be because they don't feel hungry, are worried about their weight, or are too busy at work and forget to eat. Then by the evening, they are starving and indulge in a big meal to make up for it, but this is actually when problems start and constipation can occur.
Over-eating puts an incredible strain on your body and more importantly, on your digestive system. Your body's natural defence when it doesn't get enough food is to go into starvation mode - this is when it naturally slows down certain functions, such as your digestion, in order to conserve energy for more important ones like fuelling your heart, brain and muscles. So, when you then eat after a long period of abstinence it comes as a big surprise, and puts a lot of strain on a sensitive part of the body.
There aren't enough digestive juices to break down the food when this happens, as their production by the stomach has slowed down as well and therefore food sits undigested in your stomach making you feel uncomfortable and usually bloated. Eventually, the food does pass through into the intestines but it is often partially digested food which can then lead to problems such as constipation, as it is bulkier and therefore harder to pass.
What can I do to improve my eating habits?
Start by learning to listen to your body, although this can be easier said than done as some ailments or habits may now seem 'normal' because you have lived with them for so long.
Keeping a food diary is a great, and really easy, way to start paying attention to your food and eating patterns. Grab a piece of paper and start to write down everything you eat, what time of day you eat, and any symptoms (such as constipation, feeling tired, irritability, etc.). Keep this up for at least five days and you should start to see patterns emerge - for example, you always get constipated the day after you ate a lot of white bread, or you notice you have been running on caffeine (which can also cause constipation as it is dehydrating).
From this you can then start to make adjustments, such as cutting out certain foods you think may be causing your constipation or other symptoms. Only change one thing at a time though so that you can monitor how you feel and see if it makes a difference. This will help you to pinpoint any constipation triggers.
I ask all my patients to complete a food diary before I see them, and every single time they learn something about their eating habits from this exercise.
Make a conscious effort to eat regularly as well - set a reminder on your phone if you have to! Even if it's a piece of fruit or a handful of nuts, this will be enough to keep you digestive system ticking over until you do have time to sit down and enjoy a proper meal.
And then when you do eat, firstly make sure it’s not a huge portion, and secondly take time to chew. This will allow your body to process the fact that it has food (as it takes about 20 minutes for the signal to reach the brain), and also well-chewed food will make it easier for the stomach to digest and therefore prevent constipation or other digestive problems.
Keep drinking that water too to ensure that you remain hydrated, as a 'dry' digestive system will only make matters worse, as I have discussed before in 'The importance of water'.
Don't worry about it either! Feeling guilty about food only ties you up in knots and compounds any digestive problems, including constipation, as the mind and body are intrinsically linked. Aim for balance. As a guide, try to stick to a healthy diet 80% of the time, and then the remaining 20% won't matter as much when you have an 'off day' or that odd slice of cake.
For more practical ideas for relieving constipation, read 'Natural Remedies for Constipation' by herbalist Megan Crowch.
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