What is constipation?
Being constipated means your bowel movements are tough or happen less often than normal. Almost everyone goes through it at some point. Although it’s not usually serious, you’ll feel much better when your body is back on track. The normal length of time between bowel movements varies widely from person to person. Some people have them three times a day. Others have them just a few times a week. Having fewer than three bowel movements a week is, technically, the definition of constipation. However, how often you “go” varies widely from person to person. Some people have bowel movements several times a day while others have them only one to two times a week. Whatever your bowel movement pattern is, it’s unique and normal for you – as long as you don’t stray too far from your pattern. Regardless of your bowel pattern, one fact is certain: the longer you go before you “go,” the more difficult it becomes for stool/poop to pass. Other key features that usually define constipation include:
- Your stools are dry and hard.
- Your bowel movement is painful and stools are difficult to pass.
- You have a feeling that you have not fully emptied your bowels.
What causes constipation?
There are many causes of constipation – lifestyle choices, medications, medical conditions, and pregnancy. Common lifestyle causes of constipation include:
- Eating foods low in fiber.
- Not drinking enough water (dehydration).
- Not getting enough exercise.
- Changes in your regular routine, such as traveling or eating or going to bed at different times.
- Eating large amounts of milk or cheese.
- Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
Symptoms of constipation include:
- You have fewer than three bowel movements a week.
- Your stools are dry, hard and/or lumpy.
- Your stools are difficult or painful to pass.
- You have a stomach ache or cramps.
- You feel bloated and nauseous.
- You feel that you haven’t completely emptied your bowels after a movement.
How common is constipation?
You are not alone if you have constipation. Constipation is one of the most frequent gastrointestinal complaints in the United States. At least 2.5 million people see their doctor each year due to constipation. People of all ages can have an occasional bout of constipation. There are also certain people and situations that are more likely to lead to becoming more consistently constipated (“chronic constipation”). These include:
- Older age. Older people tend to be less active, have a slower metabolism and less muscle contraction strength along their digestive tract than when they were younger.
- Being a woman, especially while you are pregnant and after childbirth. Changes in a woman’s hormones make them more prone to constipation. The baby inside the womb squishes the intestines, slowing down the passage of stool.
- Not eating enough high-fiber foods. High-fiber foods keep food moving through the digestive system.
- Taking certain medications (see causes).
- Having certain neurological (diseases of the brain and spinal cord) and digestive disorders (see causes).
How does constipation happen?
Constipation happens because your colon absorbs too much water from waste (stool/poop), which dries out the stool making it hard in consistency and difficult to push out of the body. To back up a bit, as food normally moves through the digestive tract, nutrients are absorbed. The partially digested food (waste) that remains moves from the small intestine to the large intestine, also called the colon. The colon absorbs water from this waste, which creates a solid matter called stool. If you have constipation, food may move too slowly through the digestive tract. This gives the colon more time – too much time – to absorb water from the waste. The stool becomes dry, hard, and difficult to push out.
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Constipation Home Remedies
You may be able to solve your constipation problem yourself, without your doctor’s help. It may seem obvious, but your diet has a big impact on how you poop.
Eat more fiber.
Fiber makes stool bulkier and softer so it’s easier to pass. Gradually increase the amount of fiber in your diet until you’re getting at least 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily. Good sources include whole grains found in cereals, breads, and brown rice, beans, vegetables and fresh or dried fruits. Prunes and bran cereal are tried and true constipation remedies.
Water is important for preventing constipation, too. Try to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day.
While caffeinated drinks and alcohol can make you dehydrated, there’s evidence a cup of coffee of tea in the morning may help you poop.
Limit high fat/low fiber food.
Cheese and other dairy products, processed foods, and meat can make constipation worse.
Watch your FODMAPs.
Certain carbohydrates cause digestive problems, including constipation, in some people. The names of the carbohydrates are abbreviated “FODMAPs.” Foods that contain them include dairy, apples, broccoli, wheat, and lentils. You might try cutting individual foods from your diet, but do it carefully. A lot of them are good sources of fiber and other nutrients you need.
Other things you can do to relieve constipation include:
- Exercise regularly. Moving your body will keep your bowels moving, too.
- Adjust your toilet posture. It may be easier to poop if you squat, raise your legs, or lean back.
- Check your meds. Many prescription drugs can cause constipation. Ask your doctor if this might be the problem and if there’s an alternative.
- Biofeedback. Some people get constipated because they unconsciously clench their muscles when they try to poop. A therapist can help you train your pelvic floor muscles to relax.
- Massage. Massaging your own abdomen in a certain pattern can help encourage bowel movements.
- Enemas. You can irrigate your colon with either tap water or an over-the-counter preparation to soften and flush out the contents.
- Suppositories. Some over-the-counter constipation medications are meant to be inserted directly into the rectum. They typically work faster than laxatives you take by mouth.
- Prebiotics and probiotics. You may have digestive issues, including constipation, because of an imbalance in the bacteria that live naturally in your intestines. Supplements or foods containing prebiotics, like bananas and oatmeal, and probiotics, like yogurt and fermented foods, may help.
Constipation is a common occurrence that can result from dietary habits, medical conditions, and a range of other factors. If possible, it is best to resolve it using home remedies, such as eating more fiber, drinking more water, and getting regular exercise. If a person has severe symptoms or discomfort, if constipation comes on suddenly, or if symptoms get worse, they should speak to their doctor.