Ah, the joys of pregnancy…
As if our bellies weren’t feeling full enough, what with the whole baby-living-in-there-24/7 thing, constipation during pregnancy can make you feel truly awful. While constipation is one of the most common pregnancy symptoms that can hit during any trimester (and definitely one of the most annoying), it’s also one of the least discussed.
There are several reasons you’re likely to experience constipation at some point in your pregnancy. The first, and most obvious, is that carrying a baby around in an already crowded abdomen can put a lot of pressure on your intestines. As your organs start to shift around to accommodate your growing uterus, things tend to get squeezed which can slow down the movement of stool through the intestinal track.
To add insult to injury, high levels of progesterone that occur during pregnancy tend to relax smooth muscle—which just happens to be the kind of muscle responsible for moving food and waste through your digestive track. As the muscles relax, transit time slows, and things have a tendency to… well, back up.
Another common constipation culprit, both in pregnancy and at other times, is supplementing with elemental iron. This is the form of iron found in most prenatal vitamins and it can cause all sorts of digestive problems in women who are sensitive to it. I’ve written on the ways that prenatal vitamins containing this form of iron can contribute to morning sickness, but they can also slow bowel transit times and contribute to constipation.
Fortunately, there are several easy, natural ways to treat constipation during pregnancy.
If you’re taking a prenatal vitamin that contains iron and are having trouble with constipation, consider switching supplements. Many women who have adequate iron stores going into pregnancy don’t need to supplement with higher levels and can get away with taking a high quality multivitamin along with extra B6, B12, and folate (this is the combo I take during pregnancy). If you’re concerned with anemia or your doctor has suggested taking additional iron, try a food-based prenatal that contains a form of iron that is more easily absorbed by your body and less likely to cause digestive problems.
Just be aware that not all so-called food-based supplements are created equal… Since the term “food-based” is unregulated when it comes to supplements, many brands just throw a couple of true food-based nutrients into their existing mix of synthetic vitamins, slap a new label on the bottle, and jack up the price accordingly. Two brands I trust are Innate Response and New Chapter.
Change Your Diet
In addition to switching your prenatal, be sure you’re you’re getting enough veggies and fruit which contain the fiber and water needed to keep you regular. If you’ve been following the traditional advice for lessening morning sickness in your first trimester (i.e. eat lots of starchy carbs all day long to keep your blood sugar steady and avoid upsetting your stomach), your diet is probably significantly contributing to your constipation. Click here to find out what you should be eating instead to really keep morning sickness at bay.
Drink More Water
Along those same lines, drinking enough water is also necessary to keep things moving in your digestive track. Be sure you’re drinking enough to keep from getting thirsty and if you’re experiencing constipation, try adding in a few extra glasses throughout the day. Walking more can also help with constipation, but be sure to increase your water intake even more as you increase your activity level.
Load Up On Probiotics
Probiotics can also help with constipation. Try adding some full-fat, unsweetened yogurt or kefir to your diet, or add in more fermented traditional foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kvass, or kombucha.
There’s been a lot of controversy lately over whether or not probiotic supplements can be trusted after one independent research study found that many brands contained ingredients not listed on the label and another found evidence of fungal contamination. Other studies have found that many supplements don’t contain the levels of bacteria they claim to. Since researchers aren’t naming the brands they tested, I can’t currently recommend any widely available supplements and I suggest getting your probiotics from food (kefir is my personal favorite).
There are a few brands of high-quality probiotics I trust that are available through licensed healthcare practitioners. Unfortunately, they all require continuous refrigeration, so shipping on these products can often be two to three times the cost of the product itself. If you can find a local practitioner that carries them though, I like probiotics from Innate Response, Klaire Labs, and Thorne Research.
Supplement With Magnesium
If your diet is up to par, you’re getting enough activity, and you know you’re drinking enough water to prevent getting dehydrated, you might want to try taking powdered magnesium citrate. Most pregnant women are deficient in this mineral and it’s my secret weapon for combatting all sorts of pregnancy symptoms, from morning sickness to insomnia, anxiety, nighttime leg cramps, and more.
To use magnesium citrate to treat constipation in pregnancy, start by taking a half teaspoon in warm water before bedtime and gradually increase your dose until you’re having normal bowel movements that are comfortably soft, but not loose. If you get to the point where you’re taking more than a teaspoon, you can divide your dose so you’re taking half in the morning and half at night. Magnesium can also help with insomnia though, so if you’re having trouble sleeping you might find that taking your entire dose at night helps.
Take magnesium at least two hours away from any calcium supplements or calcium rich foods (i.e. don’t take it with a glass of milk). And although magnesium is usually safe to take at normal dosages during pregnancy, be sure to check with your midwife or OB before adding this (or any) supplement to your daily regimen.
Finally, avoid taking stimulant laxatives during pregnancy, including herbal formulas or teas. Many herbal laxatives contains senna or cascara sagrada, both of which are unsafe to use during pregnancy.