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5 ways to relieve constipation

5 minute read
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Has it been days since your last bowel movement? You can use these tips to get things moving again.

Kate Rockwood

By Kate Rockwood

You haven’t pooped for days, and now you’re bloated and gassy. Constipation happens to all of us every now and then. It’s usually nothing to worry about, but it’s definitely not fun.

Maybe you indulged in too many sweets at a holiday party, and your digestive system is out of whack. Or you’re traveling and your meal schedule got thrown off. But many times you just don’t know why you’re constipated.

There are plenty of strategies to get things moving again. Read on to learn the common causes of constipation and treatments that can help.

What’s normal and what’s not

First, it’s important to know some basics. Many people think they need to have a bowel movement every day. But that’s not true, according to the American College of Gastroenterology. If you poop 3 or more times a week, that’s considered healthy.

Constipation generally means you pass stool fewer than 3 times a week. It can also mean you have a lot of trouble passing stool or your stool is small and hard, says Leila Kia, MD. She’s a spokesperson for the American Gastroenterological Association.

Constipation can have many causes, including:

  • Not eating enough fiber
  • Not drinking enough water
  • Aging
  • Medication side effects
  • Hormonal imbalances
  • Colon blockages
  • Neurological problems

But don’t worry. Mild constipation can usually be cleared up with a few lifestyle changes. And if that doesn't work, over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives often do the trick. Here are 5 constipation busters you can try.

Tip 1: Eat more fiber

Fiber is important for a healthy digestive system. It acts like a broom, sweeping waste out of the body. There are 2 types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Together, they make stool bigger, heavier, softer and easier to pass.

Generally, women should get 21 to 25 grams of fiber a day. For men, the daily amount should be 30 to 38 grams, according to Mayo Clinic. Healthy high-fiber favorites include:

  • Raspberries (8 grams in 1 cup)
  • An apple (4 grams)
  • A banana (3 grams)
  • Boiled broccoli (5 grams in 1 cup, chopped)
  • Whole wheat spaghetti (6 grams in 1 cup)
  • Air-popped popcorn (3.5 grams in 3 cups)
  • Whole-wheat bread (2 grams in 1 slice)
  • Boiled black beans (15 grams in 1 cup)
  • Almonds (3.5 grams in 1 ounce)

Prunes are also a great digestion aid. They contain both types of fiber. They also contain a type of sugar alcohol called sorbitol that acts as a natural laxative. “Eating 3 prunes a day can help with mild constipation,” Dr. Kia says.

When you add more fiber to your diet, remember to go slowly. Eating too much too fast can make you bloated and gassy.

(FYI: From overeating to a virus, here are 5 more reasons you might have stomach issues.)

If you’re not feeling well, you can schedule a virtual appointment with an Optum provider as soon as today — no insurance required. Get started.

Tip 2: Stay hydrated

Along with fiber, water helps your body pass stool. Drink an extra 2 to 4 glasses of water a day if you’re constipated. There’s no magic number for how much fluid you should get in an average day. But a good guideline is 11.5 cups of fluid a day for women and 15.5 cups for men, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The best part is that you can get about 20% of that amount from food. Fruits and vegetables contain plenty of water. Beverages such as tea, milk and juice also count toward your daily water total.

Tip 3: Get some exercise

Not getting enough physical activity can make you constipated. Exercise is also a good way to cure constipation. It helps strengthen the abdominal wall and diaphragm muscles, which both help you pass stool.

A 2021 study found that taking a 10- to 15-minute walk after eating can help cut down on gas, bloating and belching. Try to get 150 minutes of mild exercise (walking, biking or heavy yardwork) a week. That’s about 30 minutes on most days — and even short bursts of activity count.

Tip 4: Don’t ignore the urge

The need to poop doesn’t always happen at the most convenient times. But whenever possible, don’t ignore nature’s call. Holding in your stool for too long can make it hard — and harder to pass. That’s because it can cause your stool to back up in your colon.

Tip 5: Take an OTC laxative

Have you tried all of the above and still feel constipated? Try an OTC laxative, Dr. Kia says. There are several types that all work a little differently. They include:

Bulking agents. These laxatives add fiber to your stool, making it bigger and softer. Common types include psyllium (Metamucil®), polycarbophil (FiberCon®) and methylcellulose (Citrucel®).

Stool softeners. This type causes your poop to absorb more water. It softens the stool and makes it easier to pass. Docusate sodium (Colace®) is the most common kind.

Osmotic laxatives. These laxatives cause the intestines to hold more water. They also soften the stool and make your bowel movement easier. Common examples include polyethylene glycol 3350 (MiraLAX®) and magnesium hydroxide (Phillips’® Milk of Magnesia).

Stimulant laxatives. These cause the bowel to contract and push out stool. These laxatives include bisacodyl (Dulcolax® or Correctol®) and sennosides (Senokot®).

When to call your doctor

Sometimes lifestyle changes and laxatives aren’t enough to treat your constipation. They also aren’t always enough to keep you from getting blocked up in the first place.

“Dietary changes can be effective for mild constipation, but diet is not the be all, end all,” Dr. Kia says. “Many people experience constipation in spite of consuming a diet high in fiber and remaining well-hydrated.”

Are you still constipated after a couple of weeks? Are laxatives not getting the job done? These are both reasons to talk to your doctor right away, Dr. Kia says. And if you have abdominal pain, bleeding, weight loss, nausea or vomiting, give your doctor a call. Your provider can come up with a treatment plan.

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Additional sources
BM frequency: American College of Gastroenterology (n.d.) “Constipation and defecation problems”
Fiber: Mayo Clinic (2021). “Chart of high-fiber foods”
Fluid per day: Mayo Clinic (2022). “Water: How much should you drink every day?”
Study on walking after eating: Gastroenterology and Hepatology From Bed to Bench (2021). “The effect of a short-term physical activity after meals on gastrointestinal symptoms in individuals with functional abdominal bloating: a randomized clinical trial”