Habits That May Cause Constipation

From the WebMD Archives

If you've ever been constipated, you know how uncomfortable it can be. Although laxatives can provide a short-term fix, making certain lifestyle changes can help solve the problem for good. Below, medical experts weigh in on seven habits you should avoid to improve your digestive health.

1. Inactivity and Constipation

Lack of exercise not only causes weight gain and other health problems, it can also affect digestion. "Sedentary lifestyle is the thing that I would worry most about," says G. Richard Locke III, MD, gastroenterologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. No one knows exactly why, he says, but being inactive can cause constipation.

What you can do: "The best thing you can do to move your bowels is wake up, eat a real meal, and do some low-level activity," Locke tells WebMD. It doesn't have to be rigorous exercise, he says. Moving your body every day will improve your digestive health.

2. A Low-Fiber Diet Slows Digestion

Fiber is the material in plant foods that your body can't digest, and it's important for good digestion. "It goes through you and gives you something to form a stool around," says Locke. When you don't have enough fiber in your diet, stools can become small, dry, and hard.

What you can do: Eating more fiber adds bulk to stools, making them softer and easier to pass. To get more fiber in your diet, eat more fruits and vegetables, legumes and beans, and whole grains. A simple rule of thumb is to fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables at each meal. Also, always choose whole-grain breads and cereals and include one or two meals a week with beans or legumes. Gradually adding fiber to your diet (and be sure to drink plenty of water) will help prevent bloating and gas. Consider fiber supplements if the methods mentioned above don’t seem to help.

3. Not Drinking Enough Fluids Causes Constipation

When you're dehydrated, your body has less fluid available to keep stools soft. You can become dehydrated and not know it -- especially in hot weather.

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"People don't really understand the symptoms of dehydration," says Faten Aberra, MD, MSCE, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. "It can be as simple as fatigue -- not necessarily this dying thirst to have water. It can be very subtle."

What you can do: You don't necessarily have to drink 6 glasses of water a day to prevent constipation, Aberra says. The key is to drink enough so you don't feel thirsty. You can also tell you're getting enough fluids if your urine is clear or light yellow. And it doesn't have to be water, juice is fine as long as you keep an eye on how many calories you take in, she says. Aberra also suggests limiting alcohol and caffeine because they can cause you to lose fluid through urination.

4. Junk Food and Your Digestive Health

When you eat junk food, you spend your calorie capital on foods that are low in fiber and nutrients and high in fat and sugar. And all that fat and too little fiber can cause digestive woes. "We know that fat tends to slow the gut down, because the gut is trying its best to get all the calories it can from fat," says Locke.

What you can do: You don't have to give up favorite foods -- the trick is to come up with healthy substitutes. Instead of ordering pizza out, make your own with a store-bought whole-wheat crust topped by low-fat cheese and plenty of veggies. Replace the fast-food burger and fries with roasted sweet potato fries and turkey or black bean burgers on a whole-wheat bun.

5. OTC Supplements: A Surprising Cause of Constipation

Did you know that OTC supplements can affect your digestive health? Iron and calcium are the top two culprits according to Aberra.

What you can do: Eating balanced, healthy meals helps you get all the vitamins and minerals you need from food. However, that may not be enough for people with anemia or for women looking to prevent bone loss. To counter the constipating effect of iron or calcium supplements, Aberra suggests a workaround. Try adding things to your diet that make you more prone to having bowel movements, such as prune juice and high-fiber foods.

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6. Overusing Laxatives Can Cause Hard-to-Treat Constipation

Overusing stimulant laxatives can lead to dependence, says Ira Hanan, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Using these laxatives every day can cause the colon to lose its ability to move things through, he says. Overusing enemas can have the same effect, so avoid using stimulant laxatives and enemas chronically. "They will eventually cause complete dependency and the constipation can be very hard to treat," he says.

What you can do: First of all, consider whether you really need laxatives. "A lot of people think that the daily bowel movement is the norm. We would consider anything from three bowel movements a week to three a day to be normal," Locke tells WebMD. If diet and exercise changes haven't helped, talk with your doctor about using fiber supplements. The problem with fiber for some people is that it may cause bloating and gas. Laxatives containing polyethylene glycol can also be used safely on a more regular basis, he says.

7. "Holding It" Is Bad for Your Digestion

Feel shy about using the office bathroom? Not a fan of public restrooms? You're not alone, according to Ellen Stein, MD. "A lot of people would prefer to go at home," says Stein, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD. Unfortunately, ignoring the urge is bad for your digestive health. "Holding or keeping things longer than you're supposed to can have a negative effect. The natural signals that you hear to tell you when you have to go can be extinguished," she says.

What you can do: Stein advises trying to find a place and time to have a bowel movement. For example, use the bathroom down the hall, rather than the one next to the boss's office.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on November 07, 2013

Sources

SOURCES:

Faten N. Aberra, MD, MSCE, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Ira Hanan, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

G. Richard Locke III, MD, gastroenterologist with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

Ellen Stein, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD.

American Gastroenterological Association: "Understanding Constipation."

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: "Constipation."

FamilyDoctor.org: "Constipation."

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Constipation."

FamilyDoctor.org: "Fiber: How to Increase the Amount in Your Diet."

PubMedHealth: "Gastrointestinal Complications."

J. Roerig. Drugs, August 20, 2010

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