Everyone experiences occasional constipation, or a back-up in their digestive tract, from time to time. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes painful, but usually temporary and easy to treat. Learn more about what causes constipation and how to treat constipation at home to get things moving again.
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What Causes Constipation?
Constipation is when you have fewer than three bowel movements in a week.
“Constipation is a common issue and the majority of causes are benign. Dietary fiber and increased water intake can go a long way to improving the regularity of bowel movements. Many, many medications and supplements contribute to constipation so it is important to let your doctor know of all medications including all over the counter medications and supplements you may be taking,” says Martin Johns, MD, Shenango Valley Family Medicine Center-UPMC.
You might also have:
- Stools that are hard, dry, or lumpy.
- Stools that are difficult to pass or painful.
- A feeling that not all your stool has passed.
Constipation occurs when waste moves too slowly through your intestines. It’s more common if you:
- Have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Have hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid).
- Are older.
- Are pregnant.
- Take certain medications like opioids for pain, diuretics (water pills), beta blockers for heart conditions, and antacids that contain aluminum and calcium.
- Take iron supplements.
- Have a low-fiber diet.
- Don’t drink enough fluid throughout the day.
You might also develop constipation if you temporarily change your daily routine or eating habits, for example, while traveling. Eating more meat, cheese, creamy sauces, or fried foods with fewer fruits and vegetables can trigger constipation. The same is true if you’re less active than usual because your GI tract slows down with the rest of your body.
How to Treat Constipation at Home
You can often treat constipation with changes in your diet and lifestyle. The best place to start is by adding more fiber to your diet.
Fiber is the part of plant foods your body can’t digest. Instead, it adds bulk to your stool and softens it, so it’s easier to pass. Fiber also pushes waste through your intestines faster.
Most adults should aim for about 30 grams of fiber per day. To reach that goal, try to eat at least two servings of high-fiber foods at each meal. The best sources of fiber are whole plant foods like:
- Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Whole grains like oats, whole wheat bread and cereal, barley, brown rice, and quinoa.
- Beans (legumes) like black, kidney, or pinto beans, lentils, and chickpeas.
- Nuts and seeds.
Add a fiber supplement if you have trouble getting enough fiber from your diet. You can buy these in powdered form and mix them with water as directed on the label. Fiber supplements also come in pill form.
When adding more fiber to your diet, go slow, so your digestive tract has time to adjust. Too much fiber too fast can trigger side effects like gas, bloating, and abdominal pain.
Fiber absorbs water, so make sure you drink enough fluid. Adding fiber without water may worsen your constipation. Aim for at least 64 ounces (8 cups) each day.
Water is the best way to hydrate. You can try adding some cut fresh fruit and herbs to a pitcher to lightly flavor it. Other hydrating beverages include:
- Flavored, unsweetened seltzer water.
- Herbal teas, especially senna.
- Caffeine-free green or black tea or coffee.
Exercise also stimulates your digestive tract (it is a muscle, after all). So increasing your physical activity helps relieve constipation. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, like a brisk walk, each day.
How to Relieve Constipation Pain
It’s not uncommon to have pain along with constipation. It might happen if your stool is very hard and dry or gas gets trapped in your large intestine. If you have constipation pain when you have a bowel movement, try adding more fiber:
- Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit).
- Chia or flax seeds.
- A psyllium fiber supplement.
These are all excellent sources of soluble fiber. When it absorbs water, soluble fiber forms a gel in your GI tract and softens your stool.
You can also try an over-the-counter stool softener. These also make bowel movements less painful. Unlike soluble fiber foods, which are safe (and healthy) to eat every day, stool softeners are for short-term use only.
If gas contributes to your constipation pain, make sure you’re adding fiber slowly. Also, certain high-fiber foods are famous for producing gas, so take note if your pain is worse after eating foods like:
- Brussels sprouts
You may need to cut back on these foods for a while. You can also ask your health care provider about using over-the-counter anti-gas medicine.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
If these home remedies don’t help your constipation, it’s wise to check in with your health care provider. They can check you out to ensure no underlying health conditions are causing your constipation.
Your doctor may also recommend an over-the-counter laxative or prescription medicine for constipation. And if it seems a medication or supplement is causing your constipation, they may be able to suggest an alternative.
Because constipation usually improves with diet changes, you can also ask to work with a registered dietitian. They can help you plan a high-fiber diet to relieve your constipation and keep it away for good.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Constipation. LINK
About Digestive Disorders
The UPMC Digestive Disorders Center cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.