Going Too Much or Going Too Little…What is the cause of diarrhea and constipation?
If you’ve ever had a baby, then you know what normal bowel function should be like. They eat, they poop. And if they’ve eaten something that doesn’t agree with them (i.e. mom ate something or changed formula), you can tell almost immediately. Their little faces screwed up and red with gas or constipation, or gurgling tummies and diarrhea. It’s pretty easy to sort out when they’re functioning right and when we need to make an adjustment, and most parents respond quickly to these changes to keep their little one on track.
Our bodies are set up to be super healthy and super efficient, moving the food we eat through the digestive tract and getting rid of the waste. If you study physiology (how the body works) you’ll find that there are several places in our digestive process that should trigger waste elimination, meaning a healthy body really should eliminate about the amount of times per day that a good size meal is eaten. Constipation is caused when foods moves far too slowly and too much water is reabsorbed, and diarrhea is caused by not enough water being absorbed or the body trying to get rid of the waste far too quickly. Either is a sign of poor bowel function.
This might come as news to most people, as adults are so much less likely to pay attention to smaller differences in their digestive habits until a more serious or set pattern seems to be emerging. One bout of diarrhea, skipping one day of pooping…meh, no big deal right? Or is it?
While I’m not a huge fan of micromanaging your health and turning into a hypochondriac, I am convinced that paying a little more attention to the small signs that our body isn’t functioning correctly and making changes from that point could help us avoid a lot of real digestive troubles in the future that can be more difficult to sort out. Knowing the top causes of poor bowel function (constipation and diarrhea) can help you to pinpoint times when you might be just experiencing something new and nip it in the bud.
Here are the top causes of constipation/diarrhea:
1. Poor Diet- eating things like processed foods, too much sugar, not enough water, or too much coffee 2. Infection/Imbalance in the digestive tract - both acute infections and long term imbalances to our gut flora (aka microbiome)- frequent use of antibiotics can create this 3. Food Allergies/Sensitivities - inappropriate immune responses to eating certain foods that can increase in intensity over time 4. Need for digestive support - low levels of HCl or enzymes, often from infection or poor eating habits 5. Medications - side effects of medications can be widely ranged and often disrupt our normal bodily functions 6. Surgeries - gall bladder removal, bowel resection, appendectomy (there is plenty that can be done to help support normal bowel function even when it is caused by changes due to surgery)
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention digestive disorders here like IBS, IBD or Crohn’s. That isn’t because these issues aren’t characterized by diarrhea, constipation or both, but because these diseases or disorders aren’t the true cause of these symptoms. In fact, they are just a label for these symptoms, not indicating which of the above causes might be the culprit.
Helping a patient with irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease can seem complicated, but in fact is really as simple as discovering which of the above causes (and there certainly may be more than one) has led them to have this condition.
This takes us back to our baby example. Let’s say that your baby suddenly has some diarrhea. You wonder if it’s something that you ate, but then it goes away just like that. A week or so later it happens again, and you realize that both days you had a big omelet for breakfast. So you deduce that baby might just be sensitive to eggs so you avoid them, and voila, no more diarrhea.
As adults, unfortunately, I feel that we see temporary stomach upset as a “normal” thing and tend to ignore it. We aren’t surprised by it, don’t analyze why it might have occurred and therefor do nothing to decrease the insults coming in to our digestive tract in the early stages. That allows poor diet or frequent use of antibiotics to really wreck the stomach lining or intestinal flora to a point of pretty poor function before we notice that we’re having diarrhea a couple of times per week. Then we wonder how long it’s been going on.
Or, for instance, I have patients tell me all the time that for most of their lives they’ve only pooped a couple of times per week and that it’s “normal” for them. While I always advocate that each person is unique, this is certainly never normal. I can empathize with why it has become someone’s norm however, because it likely started with small changes to the typical baby bowel habits and slowly grew into something bigger.
So, there are two main ways to help yourself with this. If you’ve had chronic issues with either constipation or diarrhea, then it’s probably best that you look for a professional to help you sort out which of the above causes has been messing up your gut and how to get it back to health. A good functional medicine doctor is the best route for this as they likely won’t be prescribing medications just to mask the symptoms, but will instead help eliminate your root causes, thus fixing the actual issues. Even long term gut problems can often be sorted out in a fairly short period of time with the right tweaks to diet, supplements and habits.
The second way to help yourself is by paying closer attention to your body reactions. If you’re currently not having chronic problems, that’s awesome! And it’s also the time to notice when you do have an acute issue pop up. That one time that you suddenly had the tummy rumbles and then a few hours later had diarrhea. Was it something you ate? Was it a little “bad bug” that got to you? If you can’t pinpoint the answer, as can often happen, you can still take proactive steps.
Ask yourself about the above causes and go down the list. Ask if your diet has been on point. If not, then maybe work to clean it up a little as it might just be finally too much stress on the gut. Notice if your digestion seems to be slightly off compared to a year or two ago. This could be the early sign of a gut flora imbalance which can often be corrected with better eating habits and probiotics. You may start to notice that a certain food just doesn’t sit with you as well as it once did, which might be a food sensitivity getting underway.
As you can see, being just a little bit more conscious about the little things that our body is telling us can go a long way in saving our health long term. And by the way, if you do suspect a food sensitivity/allergy I highly suggest looking into NAET treatments. We offer these at our office and have seen many patients kick their food woes to the curb. If you need help balancing your gut flora, we can help get that on track for you too. So, give your body the TLC it needs, and if you think it’s asking for a little extra help, we’re here for you!
Dr. Caroline Ricker has been passionately helping people avoid unnecessary medications and surgeries since 2009. She combines a very logical functional medicine approach to digestive disorders and more using a more alternative holistic approach, utilizing standard lab tests and in-office evaluations as well as nutrition, acupuncture and homeopathy.
Whole Health & Wellness
10807 Big Bend Road
St. Louis, MO 63122
P: (314) 269-3847