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How to Stop Constipation...and Get Things Moving Again

Image of How to Stop Constipation...and Get Things Moving Again
Image of How to Stop Constipation...and Get Things Moving Again

It’s a few hours after you’ve eaten a delicious meal. But instead of the coffee you had working its magic and emptying your stomach, you’re stuck on the toilet feeling bloated, cramped, and slightly sick. Try as you might to push out whatever’s causing your pain, nothing happens.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you’ve probably been constipated.

Of all the gastrointestinal problems to have, being constipated is one of the most embarrassing. Not only does it interfere with your daily living, but it can also cause serious stress.

Fortunately, if you’re wondering what’s going on with your colon, you’re not alone.

Chronic constipation is one of the most common digestive problems in the United States, affecting roughly 20% of the population. This is a big deal because although the worst of constipation for some people is a case of bad gas, it can also be part of a larger problem and require a lifestyle change.

If you’re experiencing a questionably small number of trips to the bathroom — or are having trouble making magic happen once you arrive — we’ve got all of your questions covered.

What causes constipation?

Let’s start off by defining what constipation actually is. Constipation is defined by having hard, dry bowel movements, or having bowel movements less than three times a week.

(Of course, it’s worth noting that everyone has a different bathroom schedule, and unless you experience a big change, there’s probably no reason to worry.)

Constipation — or the feeling of being unable to go — indicates your body’s struggle to empty the large bowel. When your digestive system is working normally, the intestine absorbs water from the food you eat as it moves through your body, and impacts it into waste. But when you experience constipation, muscles responsible for pushing stool toward your rectum as it nears the end of your digestive system move slowly, allowing food to stay in your system longer. This snail-like pace gives your colon more time to absorb excess water from your stool. And since stool is typically 75% water, this makes it very hard, dry, and difficult to push out of your body.

Many factors can contribute to a sluggish digestive tract. Lifestyle choices, certain medications, and underlying health problems can all cause constipation.

Some common lifestyle factors include:

  • Changes in your regular routine, like traveling
  • Eating a low-fiber diet
  • Lack of exercise
  • Not drinking enough water (a.k.a dehydration)
  • Pregnancy
  • Resisting or delaying the urge to go to the bathroom
  • Stress

Constipation can also be a signal of an underlying health problem.

  • Metabolic and endocrine disorders, like hypothyroidism, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease
  • Neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, stroke, or multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Overuse or abuse of laxatives
  • Problems with the colon or rectum including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and diverticulosis

Certain meditations, like antidepressants or antacids often prescribed to treat acid reflux, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like Advil, can also cause constipation.

If you’ve experienced unexplained constipation for three or more weeks, it’s important to connect with your doctor.

How do you know if you’re constipated?

Constipation is more than not being able to make room for dessert (though that’s a problem in itself). It can be uncomfortable, embarrassing, and even painful! And since stress can make your constipation worse, it’s best to determine if what you’re experiencing is constipation as soon as possible so you can find the relief you need.

If you’re uncertain about what sensations you may be feeling, there are a variety of signs and symptoms that may indicate a slow-moving digestive tract, including:

  • Difficulty starting and/or completing a bowel movement
  • Experiencing a rectal blockage
  • Feelings of fullness, even after a bowel movement
  • Feeling strain or pain during bowel movements
  • Having fewer than three bowel movements per week
  • Passing hard, dry and/or lumpy stool
  • Stomach pain and cramps

Constipation may also be behind symptoms seemingly unrelated to your bathroom habits, including chronic fatigue. Constantly feeling sluggish combined with constipation may indicate a larger problem, like IBS.

Unfortunately, certain factors like age and sex can also make you more susceptible to constipation. Being 65 or older may make you more susceptible to constipation as individuals at this age often are less active, may have underlying disease, and may be more likely to eat poorer diets. Women also tend to experience more constipation than men, and hormones associated with pregnancy can also play a part in stopping up your colon.

You know what they say: When you know, you know. Except when you don’t. With constipation, it’s important to take your own baseline of ‘normal’ into consideration.

If you normally experience bowel movements just a few times a week, don’t freak out! But if you notice a significant dip in bathroom breaks, pain while pushing, or find yourself logging more time on the toilet without results, it may be time to visit your doctor.

How do you treat constipation?

It’s easy to make constipation the butt of so many jokes, but in reality, constipation can negatively affect your quality of life.

The good news is most cases of constipation are easy to treat and don’t require a visit to the doctor. Simple lifestyle changes like adding more fiber to your diet, drinking more water, and exercising more can all help regulate and maintain your bowel movements.

Adding medicinal treatments is also a great option.

Supplements and medicines that can help relieve constipation include:

  • Fiber supplements, or bulk-forming laxatives, help to absorb water in the digestive system to keep your stool intact. Evens Psyllium Fiber Powder and Benefiber Original (wheat dextrin) are two fiber supplements you can stock to relieve constipation.
  • Gas drops usually come in a pill meant for infants, but adults take gas drops, too. Gas drops allow gas bubbles in the stomach and intestines to merge more easily, making it easier to pass gas. Brands include Mylicon® and Little Remedies® (both are brand names for simethicone).
  • Laxatives are available over-the-counter or by prescription. Oral laxatives like MiraLax® laxative tablets (polyethylene glycol) and Dulcolax® laxative tablets (Bisacodyl) help to stimulate bowel movements.
  • Prescription IBS medication, like Iinaclotide (Linzess) is often recommended for people with IBS who may experience chronic constipation. Linaclotide works by increasing secretions in your intestines, making stool easier to pass.
  • Probiotics, or beneficial gut bacteria, in yogurts, smoothies, or supplements can help boost gut health, soften stools and increase weekly bowel movements.
  • Suppositories are taken rectally and relieve constipation by drawing water into the intestines. Popular suppositories include Fleet® Glycerin Suppositories (glycerin), Dulcolax® Suppositories (bisacodyl), and Bisac-Evac® Suppositories (Bbisacodyl).

When should you see a doctor?

Most cases of common constipation only last a day or two and go away with a little bit of self-care or medication, but if your condition persists or worsens, you should see a doctor. Other signs that your constipation may require immediate medical assistance include:

  • Producing black, tarry bowel movement
  • Signs of blood in your bowel movement
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Symptoms persisting for longer than three weeks
  • Vomiting

Constipation can be uncomfortable to talk about, let alone experience. But getting your constipation under control can get you back to living a comfortable life.

Like many gastrointestinal issues, constipation may be best treated by a mix of lifestyle changes and finding the right treatment plan.

So now that you know more about the best treatment, here’s to spending less time on the toilet, and more time focusing on, well, anything else.

The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely upon the content provided in this article for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

Photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash