Whether it’s just for one day or a whole lot longer, constipation can really make us miserable. You feel uncomfortable and bloated, your hunger cues are off, and you’re especially irritable or crabby. Maybe you’ve tried laxatives or other medications and you don’t like how they make you feel. You want solutions!!
I gave a talk on my Facebook page about this subject and I wanted to share with you the 4 strategies for relieving constipation, as well as how to prevent it from happening in the first place.
What is Constipation?
Constipation is when a person has hard, compacted, difficult to pass stool. This can be due to many things: diet, activity level, dehydration, medications, or a side effect of other illnesses. If you are going less than 3 times per week, you are likely not going often enough.
Frequency of bowel movements varies from person to person. For some, going daily is normal. Others may only go every other day, and some go as often as twice a day. It’s important to take note of how often you go, and also how your body feels with that frequency. Someone may go every other day and feel fine, while another person may have the same frequency but feel bloated and too full. Paying attention to how your body feels is one of the best indicators for determining if your current frequency is right for you.
So if you are someone who struggles with constipation, whether it’s fairly often or only once in awhile, below are the 4 things you need to promote healthy poops.
People often think of increasing fiber first as the solution to constipation. But I talk about fluids before fiber because eating more fiber without enough fluid will only aggravate constipation! The first step, especially when you’re already constipated, is to drink plenty of water, as well as other fluids.
Part of the large intestine’s job is to absorb water from digested food into the bloodstream for the body to use. The more water absorbed into your body, the more firm your stool will become. If it gets too hard, it makes it difficult to push out of your body. This is why dehydration can lead to constipation. The body will need enough fluids in the blood stream, and it will utilize more water from the large intestine to try and keep things in balance.
So how much fluid do we need? The general recommendation is 64 fluid ounces per day, or eight 8 ounce glasses of water. But if you are pregnant, physically active or it’s a very hot day, you’ll likely need to drink more. Remember, if you’re feeling thirsty, you’re likely not drinking enough water.
If you need help remembering to drink enough fluids, try starting your day with a glass of water. Incorporate it into other habits you already have, like brushing your teeth. You can also fill up a pitcher with 64 ounces (which is equal to half a gallon or 8 cups) and drink your water from that container. That way you can see how much you have drank for the day.
Additionally, temperature of the water can help. Bowel muscles can be stimulated by what we eat and drink, and warm water tends to help. You can encourage your body to be ready to go by drinking warm water after you’ve eaten and have some time to hang around the bathroom.
When it comes to regular bowel movements, eating enough fiber is key. The recommended amount of fiber per day depends on how many calories you eat. Women tend to need about 25 gm, and men need closer to 30 gm. Babies only need about 5 gm per day, and children need anywhere from 10-20 gm, depending on age and how much they eat. Adults over 50 years old may find that they need a bit more fiber to keep things regular, or they may need a bit less due to lower calorie intake that can come with aging.
Foods high in fiber are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. Did you know there are 2 types of fiber? Soluble and insoluble; most foods have a combination of both kinds, with some having more of one than the other.
Soluble fiber is soluble in water, meaning it dissolves. It forms into a gel-like substance and can add bulk to the stool. It acts like a sponge allowing water to remain in your stool, making it softer and easier to pass. It slows food’s transit through the large intestine which can be helpful in keeping your stools from being too loose, and to make sure your body has enough time to absorb the nutrients from the food you eat. It can also be helpful in getting your gut back to normal after a bout of diarrhea . Some examples of foods that are good sources of soluble fiber are apples, oats, pears, bananas, and brown rice.
Insoluble fiber, however, speeds up transit through the large intestine. This can be beneficial to prevent too much water from being absorbed out of the stool (which makes it more difficult to pass). Unlike soluble fiber, insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve in water, but remains intact as it passes through. It acts like “nature’s scrub brush,” helping to naturally cleanse the colon as digested food passes through. Examples of foods high in insoluble fiber are: wheat bran, whole wheat, many vegetables, the skins of fruits, nuts, and seeds.
Foods helpful in dealing with constipation
Incorporating foods such as cereals, bread, oats, chia, ground flaxseed, and oat bran can be helpful in preventing constipation and keeping you regular. Fruits such as prunes, pears, kiwi and mango can be added to your regular eating patterns as well.
If you are frequently constipated, take note of your eating habits. Following a keto diet can cause and aggravate constipation, as it is high in fat and protein and low in carbohydrates (our main dietary source of fiber). Additionally, some may find they are sensitive to dairy products and get constipated easily when eating them often.
And remember: too much of a good thing turns into NOT a good thing! A very high fiber diet (over 40 grams) can ALSO cause constipation! Our bodies like to be balanced, so finding the sweet spot for your own fiber intake is key.
We don’t often think of our activity habits factoring into our bowel habits, but the two really are connected. There’s a reason going #2 is called a bowel movement: it takes muscles!
Our intestines are not just a simple tube – they’re made up of muscles whose job is to keep that digested food moving on through. So the next time you’re feeling sluggish in the gut, getting up for a bit and moving around can help simulate those muscles.
If you find that you have trouble staying regular, and live a generally sedentary lifestyle, try to get into the habit of taking walks after meals. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, jogging or running can stimulate the bowels too.
Pairing regular physical activity with adequate fluids and fiber can really help to move things along, and even help you feel better in other ways too!
4. Our Mind
This last factor in our bowel health is something we often overlook: the brain-gut connection.
Also referred to as the mind-gut connection, our brains play a powerful role in our bathroom habits. High levels of stress can be correlated with constipation. Think about it: if your body is frequently in a state of stress, your bathroom breaks are likely not the first thing on your brain’s priority list.
Here’s a simplified version of what’s happening inside: the stress response kicks in; digestion is not being prioritized, due to low blood flow to the GI tract. This low blood flow causes those intestinal muscles to slow their moving and consequently food is not being pushed through .
So what can we do to combat this?
If you’re realizing it’s been awhile between poops, slow down, relax, and think about going poop. It sounds crazy, but even just taking a moment to think about going can help get those muscles going!
Allowing yourself adequate time for a bathroom break after finishing a meal can be helpful in getting that brain-gut connection going. Give yourself 20-40 minutes after a meal where you’re near to the bathroom. Give yourself a break time. Relax, even wait on the toilet, but not too long as this can irritate hemorrhoids.
A few final considerations
Travel constipation – start paying attention to your fiber several days before leaving. Give enough time to have a bowel movement before leaving if possible, and be sure to maintain the 4 bowel habits as much as possible while away from home.
Pregnancy and Postpartum – Pregnancy hormones can cause a lot of changes in a woman’s body, including their digestion and bowel habits. Also, giving birth can make post-partum pooping feel pretty scary! Even many months after birth, there still may be lingering affects, such as hemorrhoids or even prolapse, both of which can cause feelings of fullness and make pooping difficult. If this is something you’re struggling with, working with a physical therapist who specializes in pelvic floor PT can be incredibly helpful.
Eating Disorders – chronic under-eating and undernutrition can significantly impact bowel habits. Even people who appear to eat very “healthy,” including lots of fruits and vegetables in their diet, can still be suffering from the effects of an eating disorder. If you’re feeling chaotic or fearful about food, please take this assessment and seek help, either from myself or an eating disorder provider local to you.
Finally, please talk to your doctor if you’ve tried all this and are still constipated. Medications and other health issues may be at play, and should be investigated further.
Regular bowel movements don’t have to be an elusive dream! If you want to work on own eating habits to create better bowel health, sign up for a nutrition consultation with me here!
Link to video “Constipation: Nutrition Solutions” from my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BethanyRDNutrition/videos/1542803542552353/