There are days when we all have to go through the inconvenience of constipation; a situation where it becomes difficult for us to empty our bowels. It is a condition of the bowel in which the feces are dry and hardened and evacuation is difficult and infrequent.
Incidentally, women are three times more likely to get blocked up than men. Some doctors speculate it’s because our colons are slightly longer, having more twists and turns and potential roadblocks to our digestive tracts.
But while the bloating and abdominal pain associated with a gridlocked gut may be common, the symptoms aren’t something you should simply flush down the drain. Very severe constipation is not only very uncomfortable, but it can also lead to blockage of your colon (obstipation) and you may require more than laxatives in dealing with the situation.
Here are some of the things we can avoid in order to easy the discomfort:
Eating Processed Foods
If you want your inner plumbing to flow smoothly, you have to feed it the right type of food. It’s no secret that processed foods are high in fat, which slows down digestion and contributes to constipation. They also contain a high amount of fructans—carbohydrates that improve the shelf life of packaged foods but destroy our natural digestive processes. High intake of fructans could cause gastrointestinal side effects, such as bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort. This is because our intestines don’t have the enzymes that are necessary to properly break them down. “Fructans are found in several common foods like breads, pastas, and crackers. It is advised to avoid eating processed foods.
Drinking Alcohol or Caffeine
While you might need an early-morning coffee fix or a nightly wine-and-dine for your sanity, swigging excess caffeine and alcohol could rob your body of the hydration it needs to have a proper bowel movement. Drinking alcohol causes diuresis, or urination, frequent urination can cause dehydration” which can make the symptoms of constipation worse. Likewise, caffeine is a stimulant that can cause the opposite effect of diarrhea in some individuals.”
Water might not exactly be a beverage that’ll turn your mood around on a dime, but it’s the best thing to pour in your glass when you’re feeling stopped up. “Adequate daily fluid intake is essential, and the average healthy woman should try to consume at least 91 ounces of water daily,” says James-Stevenson. If you like to have options in terms of flavor, prune juice is the go-to alternative to the clear stuff for constipation relief.
Consuming a Lot of Diary
Trying to pass gas through an already backed-up colon isn’t exactly a thrill ride. Actually, it can be downright painful. And since milky products are notorious for making you feel bloated when they’re consumed, you’ll avoid a whole lot of discomfort if you just say no to dairy when you’re having trouble going No. 2. “These symptoms are due to deficiency of the enzyme lactase in the gut needed to break down [the lactose in] dairy into simple sugars that are absorbed by the small intestines,” says James-Stevenson. “Dairy products that are high in lactose include cow’s milk, ice cream, creams, and processed cheeses (like American and cottage cheese).”
For those of us who can’t get by without our Greek yogurt, the good news is that not all dairy has to be off-limits: “Good alternatives with lower amounts of lactose include lactose-free milk; sherbets; ‘hard’ cheeses, like Swiss, parmesan and blue; and yogurt,” says James-Stevenson.
Not Working Out
Exercise has a regulating effect on the body. Inactivity does the complete opposite. It is a major risk factor for constipation. “This is likely related to decreased gut movement and less blood flow to the gut.” So if your pooping schedule isn’t quite up to par, skipping out on your fitness routine isn’t going to make your situation any better.
“Exercise increases blood flow to the vital organs of the body, including the digestive tract, and increases your metabolism,” says Shah. Any type of exercise is helpful in combatting constipation—including walking, running, biking, swimming, yoga, and more.
Taking Iron or Calcium Supplement
“Iron and calcium supplements can cause constipation, as they can both slow down the contractions of the GI system. But proceed with caution: These vitamins are typically recommended by doctors if you have a specific deficiency. So if you have a medical condition that requires you to take them and the side effects are kicking you right in the gut, you can always ask your physician for alternative options (like eating more of these foods high in iron).
Popping Pain Killers
If you’re taking over-the-counter painkillers on the daily and the struggle of going to the bathroom is oh-so real, then you might want to take a second look at what’s in your medicine cabinet. “Several medications can contribute to constipation, including over-the-counter and prescription NSAID pain relievers such as ibuprofen and naproxen,” says James-Stevenson.
This one’s an easy fix: Discontinuing meds like Motrin and Aleve and making the switch to acetaminophen should help unclog your pipes. But again, always consult with your doctor before making any big decisions—especially if you’re on a strict course of medication prescribed by your doctor for a preexisting condition.
Overdoing It with the Laxatives
Pharmacy shelves are packed to the gills with different types of laxatives. At first glance, they might seem like the magic wand you need to make your poop-less bathroom visits disappear. But not all of these meds are created equal, and depending on them too much for relief can do more harm than good. “Your body can get used to relying on stimulant laxatives, like Dulcolax and Senna, in order to have a bowel movement if these types of laxatives are used on a long-term basis, as your colon can lose the ability to contract on its own,” says Shah. This is just one of a host of side effects associated with prolonged laxative use, which include electrolyte imbalances, seizures, heart arrhythmias, muscle aches, and more.
To be on the safe side, follow the dosing instructions on the box, and don’t use any type of laxative for more than a week or two without telling your doctor first. They might recommend that you take a different type of laxative (like an osmotic laxative, such as Miralax) or fiber-bulking agents (like Metamucil or Citrucel) instead. According to James-Stevenson, these are “considered safe for short- and long-term treatment of constipation symptoms.” Regular probiotic use can safely stave off difficult dumps, too.
If altering your diet or activity isn’t solving your poop problems at the end of the day, don’t wave it off: “A change in your bowel habits can sometimes be a sign of something more ominous occurring with your health, such as colorectal cancer,” says Chen. “If you notice a consistent change, inform your doctor.”