Constipation in menopause affects a whole lot of women. Why?
A couple of possibilities, says Harvard Health: Lack of estrogen may cause the colon to slow. This gives the fecal matter that’s in the system time to dry and harden, making it harder to expel. Or some women may find their pelvic floor is not coordinated, making it less effective for letting the stool out.
How do you solve constipation? You might think of stool softeners or fiber drinks, but there’s another alternative that might help you beat constipation in the long term: a pelvic physical therapist. We asked our two DPTs, Dr. Meagan Peeters-Gebler and Dr. Brianna Droessler-Aschliman for advice on handling this much-too-common problem.
Need help with nutrition for constipation or other digestive issues? Connect with a Menopause Coach and registered dietitian.
What actually qualifies as constipation? A day where you don’t go? Two? Medically, constipation is fewer than three bowel movements per week. There’s quite a broad range of “normal,” says Meagan: anything from three bowel movements a day to one every three days is considered within a normal, healthy range. Constipation is also usually accompanied by gas and abdominal cramping.
In addition to the lack of estrogen, there are other lifestyle things that affect regularity.
Hydration: Not drinking enough water in menoause can affect the consistency of stools, making them harder to pass, says Bri. Be sure you’re drinking half your body weight in ounces every day; more if you’re constipated or sweating a lot.
Movement: Because of back or hormone joint pains, a lot of menopausal women experience arthritis because they stop moving as much, Meagan says. That means they aren’t rotating their trunk (think about how you swing your arms when you walk) and getting that twisting “massage” of the gut that helps with peristalsis (the movement of matter through the digestive system). Try to get out for a good walk every day, and your legs probably won’t be the only things “moving.”
Diet: Most of us don’t get enough fiber, for one; and in menopause, when our gut may be moving more slowly, we really can’t afford to be without. Try to bump up your intake with high-fiber foods like apples, oatmeal, beans, and broccoli. Don’t go too far, as you could end up with some unpleasant gas, but a slow increase might help you find some relief from constipation, says Bri. Don’t eat as much of the classic stopper-uppers like cheese, red meat, under-ripe bananas, fried foods, and white bread or rice.
Breathing: Poor breathing technique means all the movement is in your chest, not in your belly, says Meagan, which again means your digestive system isn’t getting the advantage of the pumping, massaging action of your breath to keep things moving along. Breathe with your diaphragm, so your belly expands with your breath. OK, it’s not sexy, but is constipation?
Embarrassment: No one wants to be that person at work, and let’s face it, those perfume sprays really don’t make things better. So we ignore the signs that we need to go, potentially causing worse problems. Solution? Find a bathroom on a different floor where no one knows you? Maybe change when you eat dinner or breakfast or have your first cup of coffee so nature calls before you leave home. Or perhaps realize everybody poops and try not to be embarrassed by it.
Fear: This may sound odd, but if going to the bathroom hurts because things are dry and hard, you may be ignoring your body’s signals that it’s time to go. However, ignoring signals only makes things worse, and, our docs say, doing that too consistently will eventually damage your body’s natural receptors, meaning you may not get those early warnings any more. In that case, it takes a lot more matter to alert your body to the need for relief — and now it’s really painful and dramatic.
Medication: Many medications can slow our system temporarily, Bri says, including narcotics, antidepressants, anesthetics, opioids, even calcium channel blockers for hypertension. If you’re taking iron or calcium supplements, those can be an issue as well. While you’re taking medication that causes constipation, try to balance out those effects with some lifestyle strategies, like increasing water intake, eating high-fiber foods, moving more, or doing the ILU massage.
What we often call “constipation” may actually be a result of, well, pooping wrong.
Believe it or not, there’s a right and a wrong way to do your twos, our DPTs tell us.
The right way: When you get the “whisper,” heed it. Go to the bathroom. The best position for evacuating is to have your knees above your hips, so get a Squatty Potty, or stack up some books, or turn over a couple of buckets (be careful with this if you’ve recently had a hip replaced). Let your belly go loose and slack, so it’s actually touching your thighs. It’s not the most dignified posture, we get it, but come on… you’re pooping. Vanity really shouldn’t be a factor here.
Let your abdominals be loose so your pelvic floor relaxes. This should allow for your colon to unfold, so evacuation happens with only gentle pushing from you. Having your knees above your hips allows your colon to unfold into the correct angle so things move more smoothly. Don’t ever force it – if your body isn’t ready, it isn’t ready. Try again when you hear the call.
The wrong way: Ignore your body’s calls of nature repeatedly, then go to the bathroom only when it’s convenient. Push really hard because your body isn’t contracting naturally, and you need to get this done in the next 30 seconds. Strain, hold your breath, push down so that instead of relaxing and opening naturally, the pelvic floor muscles clench tight and “slam the door shut.”
Repeated pushing and straining is especially effective if you’re aiming for hemorrhoids or a “rectocele” (when the the front wall of the rectum bulges against the back wall of the vagina, possibly even drooping into the vaginal canal). A rectocele can form a pouch as it droops into the vagina, and fecal matter can collect there. Depending on the size of the pouch, you may not be able to clear it by pushing.
Take a whole lot of over-the-counter laxatives to counter poor pooping mechanics and try again when your schedule allows. Your body can actually become dependent on OTC laxatives, or they may target the wrong problem (do you need softer stools or increased motility – you really don’t want to get this wrong). Too much softening can cause you to keep your pelvic floor muscles clenched for fear of accidents. That can lead to severe pelvic floor dysfunction, Meagan says, which can make everything a whole lot worse.
If you’re experiencing severe abdominal cramping, menopausal nausea, vomiting, or it’s been more than 3 days, you should definitely get checked out by your doctor or chat with one of ours, according to our DPTs. If it’s only been a couple of days — or if things are moving, they’re just moving slowly — you may want to try a few things on your own first.
First, evaluate your lifestyle choices that may be causing the problem. Has anything changed in your life recently that could be throwing your body off its regular pattern?
Are you eating a lot of constipating foods? Are you getting enough fiber in your diet? Are you drinking enough water and moving your body? Did you quit drinking coffee? Have you started a new medication or recently had surgery?
Next, check your pooping mechanics: Do you have your knees above your hips? Are you giving yourself enough time?
Also, Bri and Meagan suggest trying the ILU massage. This self massage involves doing small, circular strokes that follow the path of the large intestine. The gentle stroking massage helps calm an irritated gut and increase the movement of food through your system.
If fixing all the lifestyle options doesn’t help, you need to be sure what you’re dealing with truly is constipation. If you have a rectocele, that may feel like the pressure of constipation, but it really isn’t.
If you haven’t already been evaluated and diagnosed with a rectocele, that’s the first order of business: get to a doc and get checked for that, then follow your doctor’s recommendations.
If you know this is likely to be your issue, our DPTs recommend trying “splinting.” In this case, you use two fingers (wrapped in TP or gloved) to either press against the perineum – that’s the territory between the vaginal opening and the rectal opening – to create a wedge. By pushing gently upward, you don’t allow the rectum to slump and create that pocket, so you should be able to evacuate normally. Some women do this by putting their fingers in the vaginal opening to support the wall between the back of the vagina and the front of the rectum.
Perhaps the best thing of all is to get checked out by your doctor, then ask for a referral to a pelvic PT. They can help you evaluate what else might be contributing to your constipation and give you exercises and lifestyle changes appropriate to your situation.
Have you dealt with constipation? We’d love to know how you managed it, so join the conversation on the Gennev community forums!
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