If you’re a regular pooper, then you probably never think about how vital the process is to your state of health. But once the well seems to dry up and your bathroom habits aren’t quite what they should be, you realize how truly miserable you can be and the importance of being regular. Here’s why you may not be going on the regular and what you can do about it if you’re constipated.
What is constipation, anyway?
Constipation is defined, generally, as pooping less often than you normally do, and the poop you do expel is firmer than it normally is. There are clear diagnostic criteria a doctor will use to diagnose constipation, however, as we learned from Dr. Samantha Nazareth, NYC board-certified gastroenterologist.
These criteria include:
- Straining at least 25 percent of the time while you’re pooping
- Lumpy or hard stools at least 25 percent of the time
- Sensation of incomplete evacuation at least 25 percent of the time
- Sensation of some sort of blockage at least 25 percent of the time
- Need to help yourself poop at least 25 percent of the time (this means using your fingers to extract poop or needing to push on your abdomen or pelvic floor)
- Fewer than three defecations per week
For a diagnosis of chronic constipation, at least two of these criteria should be met (and should last for three months). However, if you only experience these symptoms on occasion, it’s still possible to be temporarily constipated — and still quite miserable.
What causes constipation?
Like many human ailments, constipation has more than one possible cause. In the U.S., our diets may be a strong culprit if we’re not exactly regular. “Fiber is a big one,” says Nazareth. “The American Heart Association recommends 25 grams a day for a 2,000-calorie diet. Americans are only getting around 15 grams.”
Another big reason is the use of certain medications, including narcotic pain relief. If you’ve had surgery and came home with a prescription for narcotics, you know that a few days later, you probably have a hard time pooping, and it’s no fun. Medical conditions can also lead to constipation. “Conditions such as hypothyroidism or pelvic floor dysfunction can cause constipation, as well as obstruction in the colon, such as colon cancer,” Nazareth explains.
According to Dr. Arielle Levitan, cofounder of Vous Vitamin LLC, supplementation is another area where people unintentionally constipate themselves. She notes that some supplements can contribute to constipation, particularly calcium and iron supplements.
How can you prevent (& fix) constipation?
Eat more fiber. Good sources of high-fiber foods are beans, veggies, fruits, whole-grain cereals and bran. Start slow, Nazareth warns, as pumping too much fiber in can result in bloating or excess gas.
Eat fewer processed foods. If you fill up on low-fiber foods, you won’t be as interested in eating the high-fiber picks listed above because you’ll be full.
Drink more water. While there is no rock-solid recommendation for every human on the planet (there are tons of variables including climate and activity levels), shoot for around eight or more 8-ounces glasses of water a day, although experts recommend drinking to thirst may be adequate for your actual needs.
Don’t hold it in. If you have to poop, head to the bathroom.
Stay active. Regular exercise can keep everything moving.
Look into supplements. While Levitan says some supplements can negatively impact constipation, others can actually help. “Fiber supplements, omega-3s, magnesium and probiotics are all useful,” she explains. And when choosing a calcium supplement, try to find one that includes magnesium to help balance it out. Also, iron in most forms can cause constipation, but iron as carbonyl is least likely to do so.
Consider laxatives. Many laxatives are available over the counter and use different mechanisms to get you going again. It’s important not to rely on them, however, instead using them for a short period of time to get yourself going again while changing your lifestyle and diet to improve your bowel function at the same time.
When to seek help
If you have constipation that isn’t relieved no matter what steps you take at home, it’s not only a good idea to visit a doctor, but imperative you do so. Untreated ongoing constipation can result in hemorrhoids, fissures, impaction or even rectal prolapse. There are also certain symptoms that cannot be ignored, such as abdominal pain, blood in the stool or unexplained weight loss.
However, simple occasional constipation can often be fixed at home, so look into the above tips to keep your bowels regular and your tummy happy.