Constipation Relief Guide

Lately you've been feeling a little -- to put it delicately -- backed up. You're not "going" as often as you should, and you feel bloated and uncomfortable.

Don't be embarrassed. A lot of Americans -- more than 4 million by some estimates -- deal with constipation on a regular basis. Women are the most frequent constipation sufferers. This may have to do with the slower movement of food through a woman's intestines, as well as with the effects of female hormones on the GI tract.

So what do you do when you just can't go? Here are a few effective constipation treatments.

Constipation Explained

If you're constipated, it's often because there isn't enough water in your stool, a problem that occurs when too much fluid gets absorbed in your intestines.

According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, part of the National Institutes of Health, constipation is a condition in which you have fewer than three bowel movements in a week, and your stools are hard, dry, and small, making them painful and difficult to pass. Some women naturally have a bowel movement a few times a day, while others go just a few times a week. You don't need constipation treatments unless you're going to the bathroom a lot less often than usual.

Constipation Treatments -- Starting With Good Habits

One way to keep things moving is by getting enough fiber in your diet, which makes stool bulkier and softer so it's easier to pass. Gradually increase the amount of fiber in your diet until you're getting at least 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily.

Good fiber sources include:

  • Bran and other whole grains found in cereals, breads, and brown rice
  • Vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, carrots, and asparagus
  • Fresh fruits, or dried fruits such as raisins, apricots, and prunes
  • Beans

While you're having an issue with constipation, limit foods that are high in fat and low in fiber, like cheese and other dairy products, processed foods, and meat. They can make constipation worse.

And on the subject of diet, water is important for preventing constipation, too. Try to drink at least 8 glasses of water a day.

Also, exercise regularly. Moving your body will keep your bowels moving, too.

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What About Laxatives?

A box of laxatives shouldn't be the first place you turn to relieve constipation. Reserve laxatives for constipation that doesn't improve after you've added fiber and water to your diet.

See your doctor for long-term constipation, because a medicine you're taking or a medical condition could be the cause. In that case, stopping the medicine or treating the problem should relieve your constipation.

If your doctor recommends laxatives, ask what type is best for you, and for how long you should take them. Laxatives are best taken short-term only, because you don't want to start relying on them to go to the bathroom. Also ask how to ease off laxatives when you no longer need them. Stopping them too abruptly can affect your colon's ability to contract.

Laxatives come in several forms:

  • Bulk-forming laxatives include Metamucil, FiberCon, and Citrucel. Unlike other laxatives, you can take these every day, because they're essentially just fiber supplements that make the stool bigger and softer. Although they are safe to use regularly, bulk-forming laxatives can interfere with your body's ability to absorb certain medicines, and they may cause bloating, cramps, and gas. Drink a lot of water when you take bulk laxatives.
  • Lubricant laxatives, including Fleet and Zymenol, coat the stool to make it slippery, so it can pass more easily through the colon.
  • Osmotic laxatives such as Cehulac, Sorbitol, and Miralax help fluids move through your intestines. If you have diabetes, ask your doctor before taking osmotics because they can cause electrolyte imbalances.
  • Saline laxatives pull extra water into the stool. Common brand names include Milk of Magnesia and Haley's M-O.
  • Stimulant laxatives such as Correctol, Dulcolax, and Senekot, make the muscles in your intestines contract to help push stool out. These laxatives work quickly, but they can cause side effects, including cramping and diarrhea, so use them for as short a period of time as possible.
  • Stool softeners such as Colace and Surfak make stools easier to pass by adding fluid to them. Having softer stool can prevent you from having to strain during bowel movements. Your doctor may recommend one of these products if your constipation is due to childbirth or surgery.

Enemas are sometimes used to relieve constipation, but they can have side effects. It's better to try diet changes and laxatives instead. In general, doctors do not recommend using mineral oil or castor oil. Mineral oil can cause problems such as vitamin deficiencies, and castor oil can lead to long-term constipation.

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When Constipation Is a Regular Problem

Regardless of what constipation treatment you use, give yourself enough time to sit on the toilet when you need to go. Holding in the urge can make your constipation worse. Set aside a regular time of the day when you know you'll be left undisturbed for several minutes.

Also, don't ignore the problem. Untreated constipation can lead to real problems, such as hemorrhoids and tears in the skin around the anus (called fissures) that make you bleed. If you strain too hard, you might even cause part of your intestines to push out through the anus -- a condition called rectal prolapse that can sometimes require surgery.

Call your doctor right away if you have any of these symptoms with constipation:

Also, call if you've been having trouble going for more than three weeks and constipation treatments aren't working.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on May 21, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC): "Constipation."

American Gastroenterological Association: "Understanding Constipation."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Constipation."

Feldman M. Sleisenger and Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, 9th ed. Saunders Elsevier; 2010.

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Laxatives: OTC Products for Constipation."

Legato MJ. Principles of Gender-Specific Medicine, Volume 1. Academic Press, 2009.

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