What Is Constipation?
Having fewer than three bowel movements a week is, technically, the definition of constipation. However, how often you “go” varies widely from person to person. Some people have bowel movements several times a day while others have them only one to two times a week. Whatever your bowel movement pattern is, it’s unique and normal for you – as long as you don’t stray too far from your pattern
Regardless of your bowel pattern, one fact is certain: the longer you go before you “go,” the more difficult it becomes for stool/poop to pass. Other key features that usually define constipation include:
Your stools are dry and hard.
Your bowel movement is painful and stools are difficult to pass.
You have a feeling that you have not fully emptied your bowels.
How Does Constipation Happen?
Constipation happens because your colon absorbs too much water from waste (stool/poop), which dries out the stool making it hard in consistency and difficult to push out of the body.
To back up a bit, as food normally moves through the digestive tract, nutrients are absorbed. The partially digested food (waste) that remains moves from the small intestine to the large intestine, also called the colon. The colon absorbs water from this waste, which creates a solid matter called stool. If you have constipation, food may move too slowly through the digestive tract. This gives the colon more time – too much time – to absorb water from the waste. The stool becomes dry, hard, and difficult to push out.
What Causes Constipation?
There are many causes of constipation – lifestyle choices, medications, medical conditions, and pregnancy.
Common lifestyle causes of constipation include:
Eating foods low in fiber.
Not drinking enough water (dehydration).
Not getting enough exercise.
Changes in your regular routine, such as traveling or eating or going to bed at different times.
Eating large amounts of milk or cheese.
Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement.
Certain medications may also cause constipation. Consult your doctor if you are taking medications and and have questions or concerns in regards to symptoms.
Eating a poor diet and not exercising are major risk factors for constipation. You may also be at greater risk if you are:
Age 65 or older. Older adults tend to be less physically active, have underlying diseases, and eat poorer diets.
Confined to bed. Those who have certain medical conditions, such as spinal cord injuries, often have difficulty with bowel movements.
A woman or child. Women have more frequent episodes of constipation than men, and children are affected more often than adults.
Pregnant. Hormonal changes and pressure on your intestines from your growing baby can lead to constipation.
Constipation Treatment and Prevention
Changing your diet and increasing your physical activity level are the easiest and fastest ways to treat and prevent constipation. Try the following techniques as well (consult your doctor if any of the following measures conflict with previous medical instructions you have received):
Every day, drink 1 1/2 to 2 quarts of unsweetened, decaffeinated fluids, like water, to hydrate the body.
Limit consumption of alcohol and caffeinated drinks, which cause dehydration.
Add fiber-rich foods to your diet, such as raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, prunes, or bran cereal. Your daily intake of fiber should be between 20 and 35 grams.
Cut down on low-fiber foods, such as meat, milk, cheese, and processed foods.
Aim for about 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week, with a goal of 30 minutes per day at least five times per week. Try walking, swimming, or biking.
If you feel the urge to have a bowel movement, don’t delay. The longer you wait, the harder your stool can become.
Add fiber supplements to your diet if needed. Just remember to drink plenty of fluids because fluids help fiber work more efficiently.
Use laxatives sparingly. Your doctor may prescribe laxatives or enemas for a short period of time to help soften your stools. Never use laxatives for more than two weeks without talking to your doctor. Your body can become dependent on them for proper colon function.
Consider adding probiotics to your diet, like those found in yogurt and kefir with live active cultures. Studies have shown that this dietary change can be helpful for those with chronic constipation.