But when you’re constipated—that is, you’re having a lack of regular bowel movements—it can be a little stressful. Your mind stars running, like Why me? and Why now? But probably one of the most important questions is, Why did this happen, and what can I do to make sure it never, ever happens again?
There could be plenty of reasons why you’re suddenly backed up. But the good news is, it’s totally fixable with a few changes. Here’s what you need to know about constipation, why you’re suddenly dealing with it, and how to get back to your regularly scheduled programming.
What are the symptoms of constipation, again?
If you’re constipated, you’re probably well aware that you can’t poop. But if you’re unsure, these are the signs to look out for, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK):
- Having less than three bowel movements a week
- Having poop that’s hard, dry, or lumpy
- Having pop that’s hard or painful to pass
- Feeling like you didn’t get everything out when you went to the bathroom
What causes constipation?
Your bowels don’t work like magic and then suddenly decide to say “nope, not today!” Here’s what could be causing your constipation:
1. You’re not eating enough fiber.
Fiber is a plant-based nutrient that can’t be completely broken down by your body. As a result, it passes through your digestive tract fairly intact. Fiber “helps build stool bulk that’s essential for having regular bowel movements,” explains Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D., author of The Little Book of Game-Changers. Fiber also helps speed up the transit time of things that are moving through your bowels, helping to keep you regular.
So, when you don’t eat enough of it, you can end up constipated. In general, women should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day, while men should try to eat 38 grams, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends. Whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruits like pears and papaya are all good sources of fiber, Cording says.
2. ...or you’re overdoing it on the dairy.
Lactose intolerance can develop with age and it can lead to symptoms like constipation, says Cording, adding that this varies from person to person. So, you might do just fine with hard cheeses and kefir, but could struggle with milk or ice cream. If you tend to get stopped up after eating dairy, talk to your doctor to figure out if you have some degree of food intolerance.
3. You’re not drinking enough water.
Water is a crucial element in being able to poop regularly. “Your body needs water in the large intestine to help eliminate stool from your body,” says Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. “So without adequate amounts, it becomes more difficult.”
Not sure if you’re having enough? The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that women have about 11.5 cups of fluids a day and that men have about 15.5 cups of fluids a day, including from water, other beverages, and food. (Of course, everyone is different, and your individual needs might vary slightly—especially if you’re highly active.)
4. Traveling is a constant for you.
The physical act of traveling doesn’t necessarily cause constipation, but factors related to it can, says Rudolph Bedford, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. A lot of it has to do with a change in your routine, but people also tend to drink less water on the go, eat lower-fiber meals, and be a little more stressed than usual—and all of that can increase your risk of getting stopped up, Dr. Bedford says.
5. A lack of exercise could also be to blame.
Getting up and moving around also helps gets things moving in your digestive tract, Gans says. Stress can also come into play here, Cording adds. “Exercise is beneficial for your mood and stress management,” she points out. “In some people, being stressed can lead to constipation.”
6. You’re on a medication that can cause constipation.
Certain medications—like sedatives, iron supplements, antacids, narcotic pain medications, some antidepressants, and some blood pressure medications—can actually have constipation as a side effect, per the NIDDK. If you suddenly developed constipation around the same time as you started a new medication, be sure to bring it up with your doctor, who may be able to offer a different dosage or another treatment option.
7. An underlying health condition could be causing trouble.
There are many health conditions that can impact your body’s ability to poop regularly, including pregnancy, diabetes, pelvic floor disorders, and some gastrointestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, the NIDDK says. If you get constipated while experiencing other symptoms that seem unusual, talk to your doctor to make sure you identify the root of the problem accurately. He or she can guide your treatment from there.
8. You regularly ignore the urge to go.
Your body has certain times that it likes to poop (again, this varies for everyone!) and ignoring the cues that you have to go can cause constipation, Dr. Bedford says. Your gut squeezes in waves to move food and waste through. In turn, “if you regularly decide to hold it in, this continuously disrupts the waves and, over a period of time, will affect your gut motility to the point where you develop constipation,” he says.
How can you treat constipation and prevent it from coming back?
Constipation can usually be treated on your own by doing one or several of the following, according to the NIDDK:
- Add more fiber to your diet (start with these foods known to help with constipation)
- Drink lots of water and other liquids
- Exercise regularly
- Try bowel training, where you sit on the toilet and try to relax
- Check your medication for constipation as a side effect
- Try over-the-counter medications like fiber supplements or stool softeners
If you find that you’re regularly dealing with constipation or it’s interrupting the quality of your life, Dr. Bedford says it’s time to seek medical care to try to find out what’s going on.
To keep constipation from coming back, try to practice poop-friendly activities like loading up on fruits and vegetables, keeping a water bottle handy so you don’t forget to drink, making time for daily physical activity, and trying to poop at the same time every day. If you can do this and you don’t have an underlying health condition, you should be regular in no time.
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