As the old saying goes, everybody poops; what is nearly as true is that almost everyone can’t poop at some point in their lives. Indeed, constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal problems for humans. Each year millions of Americans seek medical help or medication to ease the symptoms and get their bowels moving again. Yet overuse of laxatives and other constipation treatments can become a problem themselves and even make constipation worse. For this reason, it’s a much better path to make some modifications to your diet that can help you stay regular.
What is Constipation?
Doctors define constipation as having fewer than three bowel movements per week, but it can also just generally mean the state of having infrequent bowel movements. The definition is very inclusive because a “normal” number of bowel movements in a week can vary greatly from person to person. In addition to being defined by frequency, constipation also often includes the experience of having hard, dry stools that are difficult to pass. Hard-to-pass stools can also cause tenesmus, the feeling of having incomplete defecation.
It’s important to note that constipation is more a symptom of another medical condition than a disease itself. It can be either temporary (acute) or long term (chronic), and there are a wide variety of potential causes and triggers. People of all ages are able to become constipated, but it is notably more common among adults over the age of 60. Because of this, constipation is also a widespread issue in assisted living facilities and nursing homes where patients are elderly and therefore tend to be less physically active.
What Causes Constipation?
In a healthy digestive system, waste material from the small intestine moves into the colon where water starts being absorbed. As this material works its way through the colon, it gradually forms into soft but solid stools that are gently passed through the rectum. In a constipated person, however, this process is slowed down and more water than normal is absorbed. This causes harder, dryer stools that are difficult to pass as well as a reduction in the frequency of bowel movements.
There are a number of known gastrointestinal conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), that include constipation as a symptom, but many experiences of constipation can be linked to dietary or lifestyle factors. Below are some of the most common causes of constipation:
- Not enough fiber: Having sufficient dietary fiber is an important part of overall good digestive health, and it is especially important for regular bowel movements. Because fiber isn’t digestible in the same way as other food elements, it remains intact in the colon and contributes to softer and more consistent stools. Insufficient fiber intake, on the other hand, can make stools harder.
- Not enough water: Fiber and water really work in combination to make bowel movements smooth and regular. If you don’t drink enough water on a regular basis, the normal amount of water absorbed by the colon will cause stools to be dry.
- Not enough physical activity: Beyond the benefits for overall health, physical activity is also important in keeping yourself regular. If you don’t get sufficient exercise on a regular basis, bowel motility slows down and makes you more prone to constipation.
- Changes: Though they are usually associated with acute constipation, changes to your daily habits can impact bowel regularity. Travel, stress, or new eating patterns can all potentially contribute to constipation.
- Ignoring the urge: Sometimes circumstances can conspire to make us busy or otherwise unable to defecate when the urge arises. If this continues, stool sits in the sigmoid colon and water continues to be absorbed as it becomes dryer and more difficult to pass.
Foods That Help You Poop
There are occasions when laxatives or stool softeners may be appropriate. In cases of long-term, chronic constipation, it may also become necessary to seek advice from a gastroenterologist. Laxatives and stool softeners must be used carefully and in consultation with a doctor because overuse can actually make the constipation worse. For all people who deal with constipation, however, a key component of treatment is to modify one’s diet. Below are some foods that can increase bowel motility and make you poop more regularly:
- Yogurt: Some dairy products, like yogurt and kefir, contain beneficial microorganisms that improve overall gut health at the same time as encouraging regularity. These kinds of microorganisms are collectively known as probiotics and can help improve the balance of “good bacteria” in the colon.
- Legumes: Also sometimes known as pulses, legumes have a high fiber content that can add to fecal bulk and promote defecation. Examples include beans, chickpeas, and lentils.
- Prunes: Both whole prunes and prune juice are a well-known home remedy for constipation. In addition to a lot of fiber, prunes also contain sorbitol and phenolic compounds that are thought to be beneficial to the digestive system.
- Whole Grains: Instead of processed white bread and white rice, turn to whole grains like barley, rye, whole wheat, oat bran, and quinoa. Whole grains have much higher fiber content and are therefore much better for helping you poop.
- Fruit: Fresh fruits like apricots, kiwis, raspberries, plums, or apples are high in fiber as well as many other beneficial nutrients (vitamin C, potassium, magnesium).
- Vegetables: Veggies of every kind all have lots of fiber and help alleviate constipation. Some good examples are sweet potatoes, artichokes, rhubarb, and spinach.
- Nuts and Seeds: Nuts and seeds have a relatively high fiber content for their size, and so they are an excellent part of avoiding constipation. Examples include: walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, and flaxseeds.
- Warm Liquids: Broth-based soups and hot herbal tea are easy to digest and add moisture to the digestive tract.
When Should I See a Doctor?
Most people will benefit greatly simply by modifying their diets to include more foods that help your digestive processes. In some cases, though, when the constipation is severe or it is part of a larger set of symptoms, dietary changes alone may not be enough. If you have been experiencing chronic constipation, abdominal pain, or bleeding from the rectum, you should contact a gastroenterologist. At Cary Gastro, we are passionate about getting you relief and improving your quality of life as quickly as possible. Please contact us today to request an appointment.