Headaches? Check. Morning sickness? Check. Extreme fatigue? Yep, that too. When you’re so excited about your pregnancy, it just doesn’t seem fair to have to endure all of those early signs of pregnancy. And then constipation constrikes. What the what!? While not a comfortable dinner table conversation, constipation in pregnancy does rank high on the list of the most uncomfortable symptoms of pregnancy.
If you’re facing this challenge, we’re here to help you move things along! In this post we’ll cover:
- What is constipation during pregnancy
- What causes constipation in pregnancy
- Tips to help relieve and prevent constipation
- Plus, what to do if nothing’s working
What is Constipation in Pregnancy?
Constipation is defined as infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools that persists for several weeks or longer. When you’re constipated, you generally have fewer than three bowel movements a week.
You may also:
- Produce hard, lumpy stool
- Strain to have bowel movements
- Experience discomfort or pain in the lower abdomen
Women who experience constipation in pregnancy are also likely to experience bloating, gas, and hemorrhoids (from straining), as it is all related to the slowing down of the bowels.
What Causes Constipation in Pregnancy?
It’s never just one thing, is it? Your pregnant body (and namely your gastrointestinal tract for the purpose of this article), is undergoing a lot of changes, both physiological and anatomical, all of which are contributing factors to pregnancy constipation.
Let’s take a peek at some of these causes…
- Changing hormones: During pregnancy, rising progesterone levels and reduced motilin levels—a hormone that helps regulate the digestive tract—cause the smooth muscle in the bowel to relax. This slow down allows more absorption of nutrients but can also result in sluggish bowels. (source)
- Increased Supplementation: Prenatal vitamins give mama extra vitamins and minerals to support the growing the baby, but this increase in supplementation, namely iron and calcium, tend to contribute to constipation in pregnancy.
- Decreased physical activity: Research suggests that when we physically move less, it also slows down our bowel movement frequency. Because many women experience morning sickness or increased fatigue during pregnancy, they are often less physically active and more constipated.
- Changing in diet: Whether it be related to morning sickness, odd food cravings or aversions in pregnancy, women tend to reach for comfort foods to get them through. A rapid change in diet, especially if what you grab for ends up being more bread-based foods and less veggies and fruits, will contribute to pregnancy constipation.
- Growing baby: As the baby grows and starts filling out your belly, the extra internal pressure on the intestines can result in digestive delays.
- Changing gut bacteria: As pregnancy advances, gut bacteria starts to change, and there is a reduction in the amount of bacteria found in the gut. (source) These changes help the body increase blood sugar levels and fat deposition, all of which play important roles in nourishing the baby towards the end of the pregnancy. In a healthy mom, this poses no additional health risks, but research shows that a reduction in gut bacteria can contribute to pregnancy constipation.
How Many Women Are Affected By Constipation in Pregnancy?
It is estimated that as much as 38 percent of women experience constipation in pregnancy, though as many as 3 out of 4 women report having at least one symptom of gastrointestinal discomfort (constipation, gas, bloating, and/or hemorrhoids) during pregnancy.
Is Constipation a Sign of Early Pregnancy?
You betcha! Once an egg and a sperm unite, resulting in pregnancy, progesterone levels start to rise. It’s this rise in progesterone that maintains the lining of the uterus, making it a great place for a baby to grow. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, progesterone relaxes the muscles of the intestinal wall, making it less capable of moving waste material through it (hence constipation).
If you’re experiencing constipation in early pregnancy, hang on for the ride—this pregnancy symptom can stick around for all three trimesters.
What Helps Constipation While Pregnant?
- Fiber-rich foods: Fiber bulks up the material in your digestive tract and helps to move it through. Luckily, there are plenty of great fiber-rich foods to choose from:
- berries, popcorn, beans and legumes,
- dried fruit such as apricots, dates, prunes, raisins and figs,
- whole grains like oatmeal, quinoa, and amaranth,
- nuts and seeds, such as almonds, chia and hemp seeds,
- fruits like berries, avocado, and pears,
- cooked vegetables (easier to digest, yet rich in fiber)
- Magnesium: The classic constipation remedy, magnesium is an essential mineral that our bodies need to function—it regulates contraction of all of our muscles, plus plays a role in releasing the bowel. Check out this post to find a great magnesium supplement. For constipation, magnesium citrate is usually most effective and works for nearly all cases of constipation in pregnancy. (You can also check out this post for magnesium-rich foods to add to your diet.)
- Cod liver oil: Cod liver oil is one of the most natural treatments for constipation in pregnancy and a champion for digestive health. It is high in Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which our body can’t produce on its own. Omega-3s help reduce inflammation in the intestines and also help regulate the hormone prostaglandin, which needs to be regulated for optimal movement of bowel content. (source)
- Coconut oil: Coconut oil is another excellent healthy fat that aids in constipation relief. It is abundant in medium-chain fatty acids, which provides rapid energy for the cells in your intestines, boosts metabolism, stimulates bowels, and softens stool. Its lubricating effect also reduces friction during bowel movements. Start with 1 teaspoon, and you can work up to 2 tablespoons a day if need be.
- Lots of water: When the body gets dehydrated, it will pull water from the intestines, thus contributing to constipation in pregnancy. The general recommendation for pregnant women is to drink at least 10 (8-ounce) glasses of water each day.
- Warm liquids: Imagine yourself outside in the winter with just a T-shirt on. You’re likely contracting your muscles and gripping yourself as you endure the cold. Now imagine yourself in that same T-shirt on a warm beach. You are much more comfortable and relaxed. This same thing can happen inside your intestines when you drink cold water—the intestines contract and hold onto its contents, slowing down the action of the bowel movement. (source) Warm liquids help your intestines relax, easing up any pregnancy constipation. Try bone broth for added nourishment.
- Moderate exercise: Move your body to help move your bowels. Even 10-15 minutes of gentle exercise, including walking or yoga can help relieve some of the symptoms of pregnancy constipation.
- Prebiotics and probiotics: In one study, inulin, a powerful prebiotic fiber, reduced constipation and increased stool frequency. Another review suggests probiotics, particularly B. lactis and L. reuteri, alter gut bacteria to help alleviate constipation and increase the number of stools per week, too.
- Safe fiber: Many fiber supplements on the market are harsh and can lead to gas, irritation or even diarrhea. This particular fiber, however, is safe, gentle and tasteless. In studies, this plant increase bifido bacteria in the colon, which is fantastic for baby as he/she comes down the birth canal and picks up mom’s good bacteria.
- Fermented foods: Fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, kimchi) contain two of the most common and beneficial bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, known to help ease digestive troubles, including constipation. (source)
- Digestive bitters: Bitters are revered in many cultures as an essential part of digestive health. Why? Research shows bitters naturally stimulate the production of saliva, gastric juices and bile, all of which reduce the uncomfortable symptoms associated with constipation in pregnancy. Examples: raw apple cider vinegar, lemon/lime juice, grapefruit, dandelion tea, and Urban Moonshine Bitters (the chamomile variety is safe for pregnancy).
- Homeopathic remedies: There are many effective homeopathic remedies for constipation, including Bryonia, Silica, and Causticum. Compare your symptoms against this list to find the right one for you.
- Acupressure: When certain points on the body are stimulated, it activates the organ associated with that point. A small study suggests applying pressure to the perineum is an effective way to relieve constipation. Check out this video to see how to relieve constipation with acupressure.
- Meditation and relaxation: Yep, tension and stress can affect the digestive system, too. When your nervous system is on overdrive, it can have a constricting effect on your whole body. Take a deep breath, a peaceful stroll, a bubble bath, or try anything that’s meditative and relaxing for you.
What Can I Take for Constipation During Pregnancy?
If you have tried some of these natural pregnancy constipation remedies, but are not finding the relief that you’re looking for, you may be wondering if you can take a laxative to help move things along. Always talk to your midwife or doctor about your constipation before taking any over-the-counter products.
There are a few different options when considering laxative medication for constipation in pregnancy, let’s take a look at these options:
Bulk forming laxative: Bulk-forming laxatives are not digested, but absorb liquid in the intestines and swell to form a soft, bulky stool. The bowel is then stimulated normally by the presence of the bulky mass. Bulk forming agents are mildest of all laxatives and can be used for longer durations than others. However, research suggests they are associated with gas or bloating and might not alway be effective. (Examples: Metamucil, Modane)
Osmotic laxatives: Osmotic laxatives stimulate the intestines to absorb water from the body. The process is slow, sometimes taking days to affect stool consistency. It basically makes diarrhea for easy passage. The danger is that fluid is pulled from the rest of the body and can cause severe dehydration and deplete of electrolytes. That’s not at all: Gas can build up while you wait for the laxative to take effect (remember, it could be up to a few days), causing bloating and cramping. (Examples: Milk of Magnesia, MirLX, Lactulose)
Stool softeners: These laxatives help moisten and soften the stool. (Examples: Colace, Dulcolax)
If you’re pregnant, ask your doctor before using laxatives.
Can Constipation Hurt the Baby?
Many pregnant women who experience pain from constipation will have this concern, but constipation in pregnancy will not hurt your baby.
Another good thing to know if you do end up using a OTC laxative (with the OK from your doctor or midwife, of course): most laxatives are not well absorbed into body and have not been shown to be a risk to the baby. (source)
The real concern is for the mother herself, not the baby. In some cases, pregnancy constipation can lead to more uncomfortable and serious symptoms of pregnancy, including hemorrhoids, rectal bleeding, fecal impaction, and rectal fissures. Oh, the joys of pregnancy! But take heart, most moms find relieve to their constipation in pregnancy with natural remedies.
How About You?
Did you experience constipation during pregnancy? What helped?