Some of the first things that might come to mind when you think of gut health are probably digestion, regular bowel movements and healthy stool formation.
However, a healthy gut can involve many different organs and bodily processes, ranging from the intestines, to liver and pancreas function, and even the brain. Naturally, having optimal gut health can play a major role in how you feel and can have a big impact on overall health.
As an important element of gut health, stool can be an indicator of potential health problems. While there are many different definitions of what characterizes “unhealthy stool”, we’ll be focusing on one specific issue in this article: constipation.
Read on to learn how constipation can affect your blood glucose, plus a few tips for healthy stool formation.
A Recap on Gut Function and Glucose Levels
Gut health and glucose levels may not sound like they have much to do with each other, but they’re more interconnected than you might think.
In fact, as we discussed in our recent article on the importance of a healthy gut, your gastrointestinal health greatly affects your glucose levels. By lowering inflammation in the gut, the risk of insulin sensitivity and metabolic disease are both reduced, which can also help prevent type 2 diabetes.
During the digestion process, the small intestine works to further digest the food once it leaves the stomach, then absorbing nutrients and converting carbohydrates into glucose. As this organ plays a key role in the breakdown of the nutrients you consume, healthy gut function is crucial for maintaining healthy glucose levels.
A healthy GI tract with a strong intestinal barrier (the mucus layer that surrounds your intestines to absorb nutrients) can also help reduce inflammation and produce metabolites called short chain fatty acids, or SCFAs. These beneficial SCFAs, such as butyrate, are thought to promote healthy blood sugar levels and support metabolic health.
Blood Sugar Levels and Constipation
So, does constipation cause high blood sugar levels? Or is it the other way around?
Constipation is a common gastrointestinal issue that results in infrequent or hard stool, blockage, or difficulty to pass stool. In order for healthy stool to form, the intestines need to be able to absorb nutrients, bulk stool, and use peristalsis (wave-like movements) along the digestive tract to push the stool out.
High blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels in many tissues in your body, including the intestinal wall tissues that support digestion. When the intestinal wall is damaged, the body has trouble digesting food, which directly affects proper stool formation.
This damage caused by high blood sugar levels can lead to symptoms like constipation, bloating, and abdominal pain. In some cases and especially in individuals who have diabetes, chronically high blood sugar levels can also be a risk factor for kidney disease, which also can lead to constipation.
The Link Between Diabetes, Constipation, and Blood Sugar
Diabetes is characterized by chronically high blood sugar levels as well as symptoms like diabetic neuropathy and high blood pressure.
Because of the negative effects high blood sugar can have on the digestive process, individuals with diabetes have poorer gut health and may be more prone to constipation. In fact, research shows that constipation is one of the most common GI symptoms experienced by people with diabetes mellitus.
One reason for this may be gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance of the gut microbiome, which can lead to high blood sugar levels and even increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes can also cause nerve damage, or autonomic neuropathy, which can prevent the brain from sending signals to the colon to release stool.
Other research associates a higher risk for constipation in individuals with diabetes with factors such as poor glycemic control, diabetes duration, low BMI, and nephropathy, indicating that there are several factors that may increase your likelihood of experiencing constipation or bowel dysfunction.
Can Being Constipated Affect Blood Sugar?
Now, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Can constipation itself lead to higher blood sugar levels?
The gut plays an important role in glucose metabolism and gastric emptying, which is one of the key processes of the digestion process. When gastric emptying is slowed down (a condition called gastroparesis), it can lead to unstable blood sugar levels, causing them to spike at first (hyperglycemia) and then dip too low (hypoglycemia).
As we discussed previously, gut dysbiosis can lead to both constipation and poor glucose levels. The intestinal microbiome plays a role here too by working to break down carbohydrates and thereby influencing glucose levels.
Another common factor that can lead to both constipation and irregular blood sugar levels is not getting enough dietary fiber. As you digest your food, fiber can add mass and weight to your stool, along with drawing water into the large intestine, making it easier to pass and preventing constipation.
The specific types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, each serve their own function in preventing constipation (or helping to eliminate it), which is why it’s important to include a wide variety of fiber sources in your diet through fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Overall, it seems that constipation and poor blood glucose levels can both be connected to factors such as gut dysbiosis or a poor diet.
How to Improve Constipation
While constipation can be hard to deal with, there are steps you can take to improve or completely resolve it.
Before we get into these tips, it‘s important to note that if your constipation is a result of an underlying medication condition, you‘ll want to work with your doctor and nutritionist to create a plan of action for your specific health needs.
Common Underlying Causes of Constipation
Conditions that are commonly associated with chronic constipation (or that can be causes of constipation) include:
- Diabetes (as we discussed, constipation can be a complication of diabetes, not a cause)
- Irritable bowel syndrome or IBS-C (C for constipation)
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (or SIBO)
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (or PCOS)
Tips to Improve Constipation
If you don’t have an underlying condition and have noticed yourself feeling constipated on a regular basis, here are some tips you can incorporate to promote healthy stool.
Focus on the Basics
If you’re experiencing discomfort and unable to pass stool, there are a few basic tips you can try implementing on a daily basis to encourage healthier bowels.
Eat a Diet Rich in Fiber
As previously mentioned, it’s important to include lots of fiber in your diet to promote healthy digestion. Fiber can be found in a variety of different foods, including oats, potatoes, vegetables, legumes, fruits, and nuts, among other things.
If you‘re working to increase your fiber intake, do so slowly, as quickly increasing the amount of fiber you consume can cause abdominal discomfort and bloating.
Remember that while fiber supplements can be a convenient way to boost your intake, eating whole food sources of fiber is the best way to ensure you eat plenty of other nutrients.
Be Cautious of Laxatives
While they may work for the short term, laxatives are not a viable long term solution for getting to the actual root of a gastrointestinal issue like constipation.
If you have any questions or concerns about how laxatives should be used, consult with a healthcare professional to see what may be the right treatment option for you.
Physical activity stimulates the colon (and the digestive system overall) and encourages healthy bowel habits. Plus, getting lots of exercise has countless other benefits that promote things like cardiovascular health, weight management, steady blood sugar levels and healthier joints!
If you are finding yourself regularly constipated, try incorporating extra steps into your daily routine by taking a walk around the block, going for a short jog, or dropping into the gym.
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Natalie received her degree in Dietetics from Mansfield University and a Master’s in Clinical Nutrition from the University at Buffalo. Her career has included nutrition education and program development in her local community, adjunct faculty at several collegiate institutions, and clinical nutrition in both inpatient and outpatient settings.