If you have three or fewer bowel movements each week or struggle to poop, you have what’s called chronic constipation. It can affect more than what happens in your bathroom.
“Your gut is central to your overall health and well-being,” says New York gastroenterologist Niket Sonpal, MD. “Chronic constipation can rob your body from a feeling of relief after going to the restroom.”
Since food moves through your system slower than normal, you can feel heavy, bloated, fatigued, and have belly pain. That discomfort -- and worry about when you’ll be able to have your next bowel movement -- can even make you want to stay home.
Try to stay as connected to your usual life as possible. Use these tips to help make that happen.
Drink Plenty of Water
How much? Try to sip 8 glasses of water each day.
“Water helps break down the foods you consume, helps your body extract nutrients and absorb them into your system, and also helps soften stool,” Sonpal says.
Eat Foods That Get You Going
Your first meal of the day is most likely to get your gut moving.
“Papaya, pears, prunes, kiwi -- these four fruits typically help people go,” says Ashkan Farhadi, MD, director of MemorialCare Medical Group’s Digestive Disease Project in Fountain Valley, CA.
Soak prunes overnight to add more water into your bowel. The fiber also softens your stool, so aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber (from all sources) throughout your day. Choose vegetables and whole grains (or cereals or breads made with them). If that's not enough, talk to your doctor about a fiber supplement.
Schedule Your Bathroom Time
If you’re at work or in the middle of errands, you may be tempted to ignore an urge to poop. But if you do, “2 minutes later, the urge will be gone,” Farhadi says. If that happens often, your colon will stop sending you signals.
Set up a 15-minute window to sit on the toilet that fits into your schedule. Stick to it every day. Don’t expect to move your bowel at first, but “after 2 weeks, your body will get used to this timing,” Farhadi says.
Get Comfortable, but Don't Push
If you need to have a bowel movement when you're away from home, don't stress. Listen to music on your phone or read a magazine. If you can relax, your body may take action faster.
When you strain to push out your poop, “you can cause trouble,” Farhadi says. You can end up with hemorrhoids or anal fissures (tears around your anus). Straining can also lead to bleeding or rectal prolapse, in which your rectum wall squeezes outside your anus.
Check Your Meds
Many drugs, like some that treat high blood pressure, seizures, and depression, can make constipation worse. Some supplements and herbs can too. “Review all new medications with your doctor,” Farhadi says. Your symptoms may improve if you switch to other drugs.
Lift Your Feet
You may want to try products designed to prop up your feet while you’re on the toilet. You can also raise your feet onto a stack of books. “Some people find this position helps them move their bowels better and reduce the time it takes to have a bowel movement,” Farhadi says.
Manage Your Stress
Stress can make constipation worse. “Anxiety sets off triggers in your gut much as it does in your cardiac system when your heart rate begins to increase,” Sonpal says. Talk to a therapist about ways to handle the things that worry you.
When you’re active, you increase activity in your gut. If you can, get moving on most days. At your office, think about a standing work station rather than a desk. “This helps your blood flow and digestion,” Sonpal says.
Check In With Your Doctor
Pain, bleeding, a change in your bowel movements, and weight loss are all signs to call your doctor. “Otherwise, check in when you’re due for your next prescription,” says Michael Camilleri, MD, an American Gastroenterological Association spokesperson.