You are constipated if you have three or fewer bowel movements per week.Eating more soluble and insoluble fiber can help you move your bowels. You can also try drinking coffee, sitting on the toilet in a squatting position, and using laxatives.This article was medically reviewed by Ashkan Farhadi, MD, a gastroenterologist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center and director of MemorialCare Medical Group’s Digestive Disease Project in Fountain Valley, CA.Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Constipation occurs when you have infrequent bowel movements or a hard time passing stool.Normally, bowel movements happen anywhere from one to three times a day. So, if you are used to having three a day and that reduces to one, that could be a sign that you’re constipated. It highly depends on the individual and what is normal for them. But, in general, if you start having three or fewer bowel movements a week, that’s likely a sign of constipation. About 16 percent of adults in the US have constipation symptoms. For older adults, it’s even more common, with one-third of Americans over 65 experiencing constipation.
Here’s what you need to know about constipation and how you can treat it at home.Causes and symptomsThere are many possible causes that can disrupt your bowels and cause constipation. Some include:TravelDehydrationPainMedication for hypertension, depression, anxiety, muscle relaxant, and pain reliefLow-fiber dietInactivityBut there are also more serious causes like irritable bowel syndrome, intestinal blockage, or colon cancer.
Constipation often comes with symptoms like:BloatingCrampsAbdominal discomfortPressure against the rectumHard or lumpy stoolsFeeling like you can’t fully empty your bowels when you go to the bathroomThere’s also a condition called idiopathic constipation. Idiopathic constipation is when a person experiences chronic constipation but does not suffer from any symptoms like bloating, abdominal discomfort, or pain.Below are several remedies you can try at home to relieve discomfort from constipation. However, if your constipation persists beyond several weeks, you should consult a doctor to determine if the underlying cause is more serious.
Eat more fiberThere are two types of fiber in our diets and both types have benefits that help with constipation.Soluble fiber is found in foods like carrots, oats, peas, or over-the-counter fiber supplements such as Metamucil. When you take soluble fiber, it takes on a gel-like form that holds onto water, which can make the stool moister and adds lubrication for easier passing, says Tamara Freuman, a New York-based registered dietitian and author of “The Bloated Belly Whisperer.”Insoluble fiber is found in foods like nuts, potatoes, and whole wheat. Insoluble fiber also adds bulk, volume, and water to the fecal material, which makes it easier to pass through your digestive system compared to hard and dry stool.The best way to treat constipation is by eating both types of fiber, Freuman says.
You can also get fiber supplements. For example, one fiber product commonly recommended for constipation is made from a seed called psyllium, says Darren Brenner, MD, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Medical Group. You can find psyllium in the form of capsules or in supplements like Konsyl or Metamucil.Fiber, in general, is also an important food source for the bacteria in your gut. So a regular diet that includes both types of fiber may encourage the growth of good gut microbes, which research has shown can help symptoms of constipation in people with IBS.For many people, drinking coffee helps them have bowel movements. This is likely because coffee stimulates a digestive nerve reflex called the gastrocolic reflex, Freuman says. This reflex controls the movements of your intestines that push food through your digestive system.Though there’s limited research on using coffee to treat everyday constipation, a 2019 review found that drinking coffee helps to restart bowel movements after you have surgery on your uterus or colon.
Drinking caffeinated coffee may be more effective than decaf – a 2008 study found that having a caffeinated drink made people feel more ready to pass stool and stimulated the colon and anal muscles. Before modern toilets became popular, people generally defecated in a squatting position, and in many countries this is still the norm.When you sit normally, your rectum lies on a curved angle above your anus, but when you squat, your hips move so that your rectum sits in a straight line up from the anus. This change in angle helps you to pass stool more easily.A small 2010 study found that sitting in a squatting position while using the toilet helps reduce the amount of straining you need to do during a bowel movement.
Though there are specific toilet squatting products on the market, Freuman recommends just putting a stepping stool in front of your toilet or two yellow pages on each side under your feet. When going to the bathroom, you should place your feet up on the stool and lean slightly forward to achieve the squatting position.You can also try taking probiotics, which are live bacteria that are beneficial for the gastrointestinal tract. Probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt or sauerkraut, but you can also purchase probiotic supplements. A 2014 review found that probiotics reduced gut transit time by 12.4 hours, meaning that they can help food pass more quickly through your system. This review also found that probiotics can help you poop more often, and pass stool with better consistency.If other methods aren’t working for you, you can also try over the counter stool softener and laxatives. Two of the most common types of laxatives used to treat constipation are:
Osmotic laxatives: These draw water into the bowel, making it easier for stool to pass. Osmotic laxatives include magnesium citrate and Polyethylene glycol 3350 (MiraLAX). The American Gastroenterological Association recommends MiraLax, as research shows that it works well to relieve constipation without systemic absorption or risk of habituation. Stimulant laxatives: These stimulate the intestinal muscles in your digestive system, making food move more quickly through your body. Stimulant laxatives, which include senna glycoside (Ex-Lax), bisacodyl (Dulcolax), and castor oil, should only be used with caution. This is because if stimulant laxatives are overused, your colon can become dependent on the stimulants and would slow down even further down the road. Many cases of constipation can be treated at home with these non-prescription methods, but there are some signs to look out for that may signal a larger problem, says Brenner. We may call these red flags and may include blood in stool, abdominal pain, weight loss, or family history of colon cancer and colitis. In that case, you should contact your doctor.Related articles from our Health Reference library: