Constipation is among the most common gastrointestinal problems in the United States, chronically affecting an estimated 16 out of 100 adults, with older people disproportionately affected, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Disease Diseases. No matter what your age, though, you might find yourself constipated, says Ashley Houghteling, a nurse practitioner at Henry Ford Health.
“Constipation affects the very young, including babies and young children, and also the very old. It can affect you in between those ages, too.”
Constipation is characterized by infrequent (fewer than three times a week) and firm bowel movements, as well as straining. Chronic constipation is when you have these symptoms for at least three months in the last year. If you consistently strain when you pass a bowel movement, you could be at risk for developing complications such as anal fissures, hemorrhoids and pelvic floor dysfunction.
Get Things Moving
Fortunately, there are plenty of simple remedies that help clear out a digestive traffic jam. Here are seven strategies to get things moving.
- Fill up on fiber: Most people don’t meet the recommended 25 grams of daily fiber (based on a 2,000-calorie diet). Increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains can help move things through your digestive tract. Getting your fiber from food is best — your body doesn’t respond to fiber supplements and powders in the same way as it does to fiber-rich whole foods.
- Pile on the “p” fruits: Fresh plums, peaches, pear and pineapple all help fight constipation naturally. Avoid dried fruits since they lack water and are high in sugar.
- Consider your diet: If you’re loading up on meat and dairy and skimping on fruits and vegetables, you’re more likely to get plugged up. So, naturally, people who follow low-carb, high-protein diets, such as keto and Atkins, often suffer from constipation. Such diets not only plug you up, they also may boost your risk of certain cancers, including breast, prostate and colon.
- Drink up: Make sure you’re drinking enough water (60 ounces per day for women, 80 ounces for men). Don’t like plain water? Try infused waters. Fiber-rich vegetable juice, water-rich fruits and veggies, and soups like minestrone, lentil and pea are also good ways to stay hydrated. A diet rich in plant-based foods is often rich in water, too. If you have a stomach bug, or if you’re losing a lot of fluids from vomiting or diarrhea, make sure to rehydrate with water and fluids to hold off constipation.
- Try prebiotics and probiotics: Probiotic-rich foods such as yogurt and kefir and prebiotic-rich products like kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha can help feed the good bacteria in your gut and stave off constipation.
- Get moving: A brisk walk, scenic bike ride or even a light yoga session can help encourage active bowels. Shoot for about a half hour of activity daily (but even a 10-minute walk could do the trick). Confined to a bed or chair? Do whatever you can. Physical activity is critical to keep waste moving through the digestive tract.
- Watch the meds: Certain medications, including antihistamines, antidepressants, antipsychotics and opioids, slow down your bowel function. Over-the-counter antacids and iron supplements can also deliver a hit to your digestive system. Your best bet: Read drug labels. If constipation is listed as a potential side effect, make sure you’re also getting lots of fiber and water.
Keep Things Moving
Left untreated, chronic constipation can lead to a host of issues. The longer the symptoms persist, the harder it is to resolve problems. So it’s important to address constipation as soon as possible.
“If you’re getting sufficient fiber and drinking enough water, you should be passing a bowel movement at least once a day,” says Houghteling. “If you’re not, keep a food diary and count how many servings of fruits, vegetables and legumes you’re eating each day. Then look for opportunities to increase that intake.”
Experiencing constipation for the first time? It’s a good idea to visit your healthcare provider, especially if you see blood in your stool. Constipation can be a side effect of other medical issues. In most cases, though, it’s easy to correct.
To find a doctor or primary care provider at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).