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Constipation is never fun to deal with and can often become a major concern if it becomes long-term — especially in our kiddos. However, it is a great indicator of their overall health! There are multiple reasons for constipation in children, some of which may be surprising to you.
While it makes sense to think of constipation as a problem in the gut, in this article I’ll look at some of the brain-based causes of constipation that are often overlooked when trying to relieve constipation naturally.
What Is Constipation?
Constipation has been estimated to affect up to 30% of children worldwide. According to the National Institute of Health, constipation is defined as having less than 3 bowel movements per week. It may also be diagnosed in cases where stool is difficult or painful to pass.
The optimal number of bowel movements may vary depending on age. Bowel movements for infants may occur anywhere from 3-6 times per day whereas children and adults may have 1-3. The stool should be well-formed and easy to pass.
What Are Common Signs Of Constipation?
Adults may know full well when they are constipated, but it’s harder for kids to understand and communicate what’s going on.
Constipation doesn’t just mean a lack of bowel movements. Slow movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract can be identified by observing some of the following signs and symptoms:
- Increased regurgitation and irritability in infants
- Difficulty passing stools possibly becoming red in the face while trying
- Hard stools
- Complaints of pain with bowel movements
- Complaints of stomach pain
- Wide stools
- Stool that resembles small pellets
- Decreased appetite
- Less than 3 bowel movements per week. A minimum of one bowel movement per day is ideal.
- When looking for signs of constipation, focusing on the frequency of bowel movements, the transit time of food through the tract, and ease of passing the stool will help to gauge potential problems.
What Causes Constipation?
There are multiple factors that may contribute to constipation. Constipation in both children and adults may be due to medical conditions or some minor digestive dysfunction.
Each case is unique, so it’s always wise to check with a doctor to rule out more serious medical problems. Signs of a deeper problem include fever, vomiting, significant weight loss, and in the case of babies or small children, unusual fussiness.
Some common medical conditions that cause constipation are:
- Problems with the muscles and nerves that control bowel movements
- Certain medications may cause constipation
- Diseases of the colon
Another cause of constipation may actually be the result of a dysfunction in the brain-gut connection. How, you may ask? Let me explain. We will work our way from the top (brain) down (gut)!
The Brain-Gut Connection
The brain and the gut have a very close relationship. They communicate frequently with one another and when one is affected, the other is equally affected.
The brain’s job is to take all of the senses from the environment and direct the other body functions to keep the body in a state of balance (this is called homeostasis). Everything from the proper release of hormones to the right balance of digestive enzymes relies on the brain.
The brain is responsible for sending signals to the digestive tract to move food through the tube. It sends messages that trigger the release of specific chemicals and enzymes to break down food and create enough blood flow to the area to deliver nutrients.
The gastrointestinal tract is made of a long tube that extends from the mouth to the anus. This tube is full of various bacteria, enzymes, nerves, and muscles that help propel food through the tube. It is our only internal system that has direct contact with the outside food we consume. We know our digestive tract absorbs nutrients from food. It can also absorb harmful toxins if consumed. Both nutrients and toxins are delivered to various body systems including the brain.
Toxins from processed foods, refined sugar, and artificial ingredients can keep the brain from sending appropriate signals to the digestive tract to promote movement. Voila… the right conditions for constipation!
How Does the Brain Talk to the Gut?
The brain talks to our gut through the autonomic nervous system, or ANS for short. The ANS controls the function of organs such as our heart, lungs, stomach, gut, liver, kidneys. In other words, it is pretty important! The ANS makes up 90% of brain output and does not require any voluntary control. This is how our heart rate, breathing, blood circulation, and digestions happens without our having to think about it.
The autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts:
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
This is the side of the ANS that we should be in most of the time. This is our “rest, digest, repair, and heal” side. When in this state, our blood pressure decreases, heart rate normalizes, sleep improves, digestion works, and bowel movement increases.
The vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system. It is the connection between the brain and the digestive tract. It requires proper stimulation from the brain to communicate with the gut and tell it what to do. If the function of the parasympathetic nervous system is depressed, then the brain-gut communication is reduced.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system increases during times of stress. This is our “fight or flight” response. Stress can be in the form of toxins, emotional or physical stress, trauma, lack of stimulation, food sensitivities, etc. Our heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, stored energy is released for fuel, and functions that are not so important such as digestion come to a halt.
In an ideal world, a fight or flight situation should last a short time and then subside. It is more common today that we are in more of sympathetic rather than a parasympathetic state. This means that digesting our food is rarely our body’s main focus leading to digestion problems, inability to absorb nutrients, and slow motility.
Causes for Brain-Based Constipation
There are multiple reasons why an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system may lead to constipation. Here are a few reasons to investigate.
- Situational factors — Changes in natural rhythms or routines may unintentionally cause a sympathetic response. These factors may include travel, a problem at school or work, or anything that causes a change in routine or schedule. When this occurs, the body is more prepared to fight the potential threat that is present rather than digesting the food that is sitting in the gut. Keeping daily activity patterns as routine as possible may help to calm this stress response.
- Stress and anxiety — This also falls right in line with the “fight or flight” response. A skewed perception of our world can increase the activation of the sympathetic nervous system which then leads to a decrease in the “rest and digest” nervous system. Leading to… you guessed it… constipation and digestive problems.
How Does the Gut Influence the Brain?
So we know the brain talks to our guts, but how does the gut talk back?
Believe it or not, the gut has its own nervous system embedded within the walls of the gut referred to as the enteric nervous system. It can actually work independently from the brain-controlling actions of digestion such as breaking down food into small particles, absorbing nutrients, and eliminating waste products.
These processes require chemical reactions mixing and mushing to push everything through the tubes in a timely fashion. When the foods we consume are full of anti-nutrients stress takes over and the enteric nervous system begins to malfunction.
Causes for Gut-Based Constipation
Constipation may also be caused by basic digestive tract or a problem with the enteric nervous system. To determine if this is the case, here are a few causes for digestive-tract-based constipation:
- Avoiding a bowel movement — This may be due to timing, fear of discomfort or pain, or if a preoccupied child decided to refrain from taking a potty break. Identifying and observing internal cues can be a process that may result in some constipation during transition. When defecation is avoided, water eventually leaves the colon preventing easy passage of stool.
- A poor diet — A diet high in refined and processed foods (the Standard American Diet) filled with artificial ingredients and dyes may cause constipation. This creates inflammation in the body which slows movement in the digestive tract. Decreasing inflammation by eliminating these foods in the diet may promote more frequent bowel movements.
- A low fiber diet — We all know how difficult it can be to get our kids to eat more vegetables but dietary fiber may be the one thing lacking in their diet that is contributing to a difficult bowel movement.
- Dehydration/lack of water consumption — Drinking water helps push the fiber through the digestive tract to be eliminated. It is not uncommon for chronic constipation to be resolved after simply increasing water intake. Simple solutions — just the way we like it!
- Food sensitivities — Food sensitivities tend to increase inflammation. Inflammation is a stress response in the body and may cause constipation.
- Imbalance in microflora or bacterial overgrowth — When food moves too slowly through the GI tract, diets are high in sugars and poor in nutrients, and exposures to toxins exist, bad bacteria in the gut may overpower the good. Not only does this lead to various digestive complaints such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, but those microbes are responsible for sending chemical messages and nutrients up to the brain to kick that parasympathetic nervous system into gear!
Natural Remedies for Constipation
So how do we reverse the cycle and let the body do its job of keeping the body in balance?
1. Increase “Rest and Digest” and Decrease “Fight or Flight” Activity
According to Datis Kharrazian, in addition to dietary changes and supplementation, certain neurological exercises may be used to treat constipation. Performing certain exercises that are able to stimulate the vagus nerve connecting the brain and the gut may help to relieve constipation. This is because stimulation of the vagus nerve increases the “rest and digest” activity. These exercises must be done on a consistent basis in order for results to be seen, but once achieved the positive changes should be maintained.
- Gargling — forcefully gargling with water multiple times per day to the point that it becomes slightly uncomfortable helps to stimulate the vagus nerve.
- Gagging — this one is obviously not as fun — touching the muscles on the back of the tongue stimulates the gag reflex which then helps to activate the vagus nerve.
- Humming or singing loudly — another great way for you and your kids to have fun while promoting digestion and bowel movements. The action of singing stimulates the same muscles in the back of the throat activating the vagus nerve.
- Hot packs on the abdomen or abdominal massage — helps to relax the muscles of the abdomen allowing for an increase in bowel movements.
- For young children, gargling, gagging, and humming may not be possible. If this is the case, therapeutic massage and warm packs on the abdomen may be utilized to stimulate the vagus nerve.
2. Use Food as a Constipation Remedy
In the brilliant words of Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine!” Consuming the right foods for both brain and gut function can have a profound effect on relieving constipation.
Let’s take a look at a few options…
- High-fiber foods are natural laxatives. Be sure to increase these slowly with plenty of water: fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, potatoes, squash, avocado, chia, flax seed, pumpkin seeds, pumpkin, green leafy vegetables (high in magnesium).
- Psyllium husk
- Prunes, prune juice, and figs (in moderation due to high sugar)
- Increase water intake (drinking warm water also helps)
- Aloe vera water
- Avoid processed foods especially foods such as dairy, white bread, pasta, other gluten-filled grains, and fast food.
3. Try Natural Supplements to Help Constipation
Beyond using food as a means to relieve constipation, other supplemental remedies may be helpful.
Here are a few that may be worth giving a try:
4. Other Home Remedies for Constipation
When food and supplements are not enough to provide relief, lifestyle changes may be needed. These lifestyle changes are good to begin incorporating in our day-to-day practices preventing constipation altogether.
- Improving overall digestion naturally with a healthy diet always has the potential to be the best constipation remedy!
- Squatty Potty — the purchase of this little gem allows us to position our bodies in a way (a squatting position) that takes away the tension on the rectum that occurs when we sit. A 7-9 inch size adjustable squatty potty would be beneficial for most children.
- For kids, examine their routine — As we know, our kids can become easily amused with others things outside of bathroom habits placing the need to poop on the back burner of priorities. Routine would be helpful in preventing such scenarios.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you have a natural remedy that has helped relieve constipation? Share it with us below!
- Nurko S, Zimmerman LA. Evaluation and Treatment of Constipation in Children and Adolescents. American Family Physician. Published July 15, 2014.
- Constipation. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
- Madani, S., Tsang, L., & Kamat, D. (2016). Constipation in Children: A Practical Review. Pediatric annals, 45(5), e189–e196.
- Overview of the Autonomic Nervous System – Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders. Merck Manuals Consumer Version.
- Hadhazy A. Think Twice: How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being. Scientific American. . Published February 12, 2010.
- Corliss J. Probiotics may ease constipation. Harvard Health Blog. Published November 28, 2017.
- Kharrazian, D. (2012). Why isn’t my brain working?. Pp.131-167