It happens to us all. Learn the most common culprits, easy ways to stay regular, and when to see a doctor…
Myth: You Should Have a Bowel Movement Every Day
What’s “normal” varies from person to person. Some people go three times a day; others, three times a week. Although having a bowel movement once a day is common, it’s fine to go a few days without one. Constipation means having fewer than three bowel movements per week. You’re considered severely constipated if you have fewer than one movement a week. Seek medical help for sudden constipation.
Myth: Constipation Creates Toxins and Health Problems
Some people believe that constipation causes the body to absorb poisonous substances in stools. They believe this causes diseases such as arthritis, asthma, and colon cancer. But there’s no evidence that the stools produce toxins or that colon cleansing, laxatives, or enemas can prevent cancer or other diseases.
Myth: Constipation Just Means I Need More Fiber
Increasing the fiber in your diet can often help constipation. But chronic constipation can signal a real problem. It can indicate a poorly functioning thyroid gland or diabetes. It can be the result of Parkinson’s disease or stroke, or a side effect of medications. In rare cases, it can signal illnesses such as colorectal cancer or autoimmune disease. See a doctor if symptoms last more than two weeks or you have blood in your stools, severe pain with bowel movements, or unexplained weight loss.
Fact: Dairy Can Cause Constipation
If you’re lactose intolerant, eating dairy could cause constipation. One study linked constipation to lactose intolerance in children. Most lactose intolerant people can eat at least a little dairy every day. Talk to your doctor if small amounts seem to constipate you.
Fact: Vacations Can Cause Constipation
Travel can change your daily routine and diet, contributing to constipation. Avoid dehydration-related constipation by drinking water, especially if you’re flying. Also move around when you can — for example, while waiting for plane connections or by taking rest stops when driving. Other travel tips: Exercise, limit alcohol, and make a point of eating fruits and vegetables.
Fact: Mood Can Affect Your Regularity
Depression may trigger constipation or make it worse. Reducing stress through meditation, yoga, biofeedback, and relaxation techniques may help. Acupressure or shiatsu massage may help, too. And massaging the abdomen may help relax the muscles that support the intestines and get your bowels moving.
Myth: Holding It Won’t Hurt
You may feel too busy at work to have a bowel movement. Or you’d rather wait until you’re home. But ignoring the urge when it comes may not only make you physically uncomfortable — it can cause or aggravate constipation by weakening the signals over time. Some people find it helps to set aside time after breakfast or another meal for a bowel movement. But no matter when nature calls, answer.
Fact: Medications Can Cause Constipation
Some medications for pain, depression, high blood pressure, and Parkinson’s disease are associated with constipation. Too much calcium and iron can also lead to constipation. Calcium supplements, especially if taken with another supplement or medication that binds the stool, may also cause problems. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns.
Fact: A Low-Fiber Diet May Cause Constipation
Not having enough fiber in your diet often leads to constipation. To prevent it, try to get at least 20 grams a day, but more is better. Eat more whole fruits and vegetables; replace white rice, bread, and pastas with whole-grain products. Increase your fiber intake slowly to avoid gas and bloating. And water helps fiber pass stools, so drink at least 2 to 4 extra glasses of water a day. Don’t expect results overnight — after a few days of regular fiber intake you should start to see improvement.
Fact: Prunes Help Keep You Regular
This small, dried fruit has earned a big reputation as “nature’s remedy” for constipation. Prunes (often called dried plums) can prevent or improve constipation symptoms. They’re packed with insoluble fiber, as well as the natural laxatives sorbitol and dihydrophenylisatin. The soluble fiber found in prunes may help lower cholesterol. And they’re safe for long-term consumption.
Fact: Drinking Water May Help
Drinking plenty of water helps prevent dehydration, which can lead to constipation. Liquids can help keep your stool soft to help prevent and alleviate constipation. Talk to your doctor about how much water is good for you. Remember to limit caffeinated or alcoholic beverages — too many of these can cause dehydration.
Fact: Exercise Keeps You Regular
Lack of physical activity can contribute to constipation. Exercise, however, can help make your bowel movements more regular and can reduce stress. Wait at least an hour after eating a big meal before you exercise to give your body time to digest your food. Then get moving! Try a 10- to 15-minute walk several times a day. Stretching and yoga can also help constipation.
Myth: Coffee Can Fix Constipation
It’s true that the caffeine in coffee can stimulate the muscles in your digestive system to contract, causing a bowel movement. So why isn’t it recommended as a fix for constipation? Coffee can actually make stools harder to pass because it is also a diuretic, so it draws liquid out of stools. If you are constipated, avoid coffee and other diuretics such as alcohol and caffeinated tea and cola.
Myth: Colon Cleansing Will Clear Me Out
Enemas and colon irrigation (high colonics) may temporarily remove body waste, but they’re not an effective way to prevent or cure constipation. Enemas can actually cause constipation in older people who get them regularly. Colonic irrigation, which is usually done by colonic hygienists or therapists, can damage the colon and can lead to other issues. Talk to your doctor if you are considering the procedure.
Myth: Laxatives Work Immediately
Depending on the type of over-the-counter laxative you use, you may need to wait a few minutes or a few days to produce a bowel movement. A suppository might work within an hour. But you may need to take a bulk-forming fiber product every day for several days to see results. Most over-the-counter laxatives are meant for short-term use, though. Overuse can lead to other digestive problems. Constipation usually lasts a few days and is rarely serious. Talk to your doctor if you need to use laxatives for more than two weeks.
Fact: Stool Softeners Are Laxatives
Stool softeners prevent constipation by allowing stools to absorb more water from the colon. They prevent feces from hardening — softer stools are easier to eliminate from the body. Like other laxatives, stool softeners should be taken for short-term relief.
Myth: Castor Oil is a Cure-All
Castor oil is a powerful laxative. But like other laxatives, it should not be used long-term. Overusing laxatives can hurt your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and some medications. Castor oil can damage the bowel muscles, nerves, and tissue if overused — all of which can cause constipation. Use it only with a doctor’s guidance.
Myth: Constipation Is Only an Older Person’s Condition
Older people are more likely to become constipated. This can be because of medical conditions, poor nutrition, greater use of medications, or not enough physical activity. But constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal issues among other age groups, too. And it’s not unusual during pregnancy or after childbirth or surgery. Remember, if you’re pregnant and considering taking something to relieve constipation, check with your doctor. n
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD