Though we rarely talk about it, going to the bathroom is essential for our health and well-being.
Struggling to have regular and easy bowel movements can be frustrating and uncomfortable.
But thankfully, there are several options that can help, including over-the-counter (OTC) supplements and lifestyle changes.
Understanding the signs and possible causes of constipation can help you identify the most effective solutions.
This article will explain the symptoms and causes of constipation and some of the most effective remedies.
Finally, it will cover when it’s important to seek advice from a healthcare professional.
What is Constipation?
Constipation is the difficulty to pass easy and frequent bowel movements.
It is often defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week.
Though uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing to talk about, the condition is very common: An estimated 2.5 million Americans are affected.
Additional symptoms of constipation can include:
- Having lumpy or hard stools
- Straining to have bowel movements
- Feeling like there’s a blockage in the rectum
- Feeling like you’re unable to empty the stool from your rectum completely
- Needing help to have a bowel movement, like using your hands to press on your stomach
Most people will experience constipation at some point in their lifetime.
But a smaller percentage of people may experience chronic constipation, a condition marked by difficulty passing bowel movements for several weeks or longer.
For some, chronic constipation can interfere with their quality of life and daily responsibilities.
Though anyone can get chronic constipation, there are some factors that can increase your risk:
- Age: Older individuals are more at risk for chronic constipation.
- Sex: People with vaginas are more likely to get chronic constipation.
- Lifestyle: How you eat, drink, and general lifestyle can affect your risk. Eating a diet low in dietary fiber, low in fluids or water, and not getting adequate physical activity can increase your risk.
- Medical conditions: Certain mental health conditions, like depression and eating disorders, can increase the risk of chronic constipation. Some prescription medications, including some antidepressants, opioids, and medications used to lower blood pressure, can also cause chronic constipation.
Causes of Constipation
The most common cause of constipation is when waste moves too slowly through the colon, making fecal matter harder, drier, and more difficult to pass.
This is also referred to as “functional constipation.”
However, additional causes are also possible. Other possible causes of constipation include:
- Blockage or obstruction: Several things can cause a blockage in the colon, rectum, or intestines. Certain cancers, including colon, rectal, or abdominal cancer, can press on the colon, blocking stool movement. Another condition that can cause obstruction is anal fissures. Anal fissures are tiny tears in the thin, moist tissue that lines the anus, which causes constipation, pain, and bloody stools. A bowel stricture, or narrowing of the colon, can also create blockages or obstructions that cause constipation. Rectocele (when there’s a rectum bulge through the back wall of the vagina) can also cause a blockage.
- Nerve problems: Several neurological conditions can affect the nerves and muscles in the rectum and colon, making it harder to facilitate bowel movements. These conditions include multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke, and Parkinson’s disease.
- Pelvic muscle problems: Conditions that affect the pelvic muscles can cause chronic constipation. These conditions include weakened pelvic muscles, anismus (the inability to relax pelvic muscles to have a bowel movement), or dyssynergia (when pelvic muscles don’t properly coordinate contraction and relaxation).
- Dietary choices: Certain foods can cause constipation or make the symptoms of constipation worse. Specifically, eating foods low in fiber, like ultra-processed grains, red meat, fried or fast foods, and milk and dairy products, can cause constipation. Dehydration can also cause and worsen constipation.
- Hormonal diseases and conditions: Conditions like diabetes, overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism), pregnancy, and underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) can affect the balance of hormones in the body, which can also cause constipation.
How to Make Yourself Poop
There are several treatment options and lifestyle changes that can help to treat constipation.
The best option for you will depend on how mild or severe your constipation is, as well as several individual health factors.
Many cases of mild constipation can be relieved with simple dietary changes.
To start, you may decide to keep a food diary to keep track of which food choices may be causing or exacerbating your constipation.
If your diet is low in fiber, you should gradually increase your fiber intake by including high-fiber foods in your daily diet, such as:
- Fruits (dried fruits can be especially high in fiber)
- Whole grains, cereals, and bread
Increasing your fiber intake will help to increase the weight of your stool and speed up its movement through your digestive tract.
However, it’s important to increase fiber intake slowly to avoid unwanted side effects like gassiness and bloating.
Staying hydrated throughout the day can help to prevent constipation and help treat mild cases of constipation caused by dehydration. Limiting dehydrating beverages, like those that contain large quantities of caffeine and alcohol may also help.
Living a sedentary lifestyle can cause constipation or make symptoms worse. Getting some form of daily exercise can help. But if you’re incorporating daily movement into your routine for the first time, reach out to a health professional to ensure you’re incorporating exercise in a safe and sustainable way for your body.
In cases of moderate to severe constipation caused by nerve and muscle problems, overuse of laxatives, or poor bathroom habits, bowel training may help you retrain your muscles to have easy and regular bowel movements. Exercises may include going to the bathroom whenever you feel the “urge” and getting up from the toilet when the urge has passed.
Avoiding long periods on the toilet while reading or looking at your phone can also help to retrain your muscles to make efficient use of your time. Before starting bowel retraining, reach out to your doctor to see if this option is right for you.
When lifestyle changes aren’t enough to relieve your constipation, there are several types of laxatives that may help.
Please discuss with your provider to determine if any of these options are recommended for you, as some may be prohibited.:
- Bulk-forming laxatives: Bulk-forming laxatives work by drawing water into stool and making it easier to pass. They’re generally safe to use, but they can take anywhere between 12 hours to several days to take effect. Keep in mind that some mild side effects are possible when taking bulk-forming laxatives, including gas and bloating.
- Stool softeners: Stool softeners also work by adding moisture to stools and making them softer and easier to pass.
- Lubricants: Your provider may recommend using a lubricant like mineral oil if you’re experiencing constipation caused by anal fissures or if you’re experiencing pain from hemorrhoids. A lubricant can help your stool to pass more smoothly in these cases.
- Osmotics: Osmotic laxatives work by drawing and holding water in stools to soften and increase bowel movements. They come in many forms, including those that contain magnesium (magnesium citrate, milk of magnesia), polyethylene glycol (MiraLAX), sodium phosphate (Fleet Phospho-Soda), and sorbitol or lactulose.
- Stimulants: Stimulants work by triggering contractions in the intestines to move stool along. However, because there is a risk of becoming dependent on them, many health professionals don’t recommend this option.
When to See a Doctor
Occasional constipation can be a bother. But in most cases, a change to your diet or lifestyle will help to relieve symptoms.
But if you’re experiencing chronic constipation that won’t go away, it’s important to reach out to your doctor for help.
It’s also important to reach out to your provider as soon as possible if you experience any of the following more severe side effects:
- Blood in stool
- Black, tarry stools
- Slow reflexes
- Severe, persistent stomach pain
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
American Gastroenterological Association Technical Review on Constipation. (2014).
Bowel retraining. (2020).
Concerned About Constipation? (2013).
Don’t bomb the bowel with laxatives. (2019).