Discussing poop problems makes many people uncomfortable, but the number one step to resolving number two troubles is baring it all to your doctor. And an understanding of constipation’s causes and solutions can facilitate your potty talk.
The bowel, formed by the small intestine and large intestine (aka colon), connects the stomach to the anus and acts as the last stop on the digestive tract. As food passes through this tube-shaped organ, the body breaks it down into nutrients and waste. But a five-foot-long winding maze isn’t exactly the smoothest egress, even if it is made of smooth muscle, and, like any complicated plumbing system, the pipes back up from time to time.
“In a medical sense, constipation is viewed as the difficult transit of bowel movements,” explains Roper St. Francis Healthcare family physician Dr. Brian Dewhirst. “Either you’ve gone a long time without having a bowel movement or feel like you need to but can’t.” In layman’s terms, you can’t do the doo.
Q: What are the most common colon cloggers?
A: “Constipation is generally considered a symptom, not a diagnosis, so we always look for an underlying cause,” Dr. Dewhirst says. Medications and changes in diet are common culprits, though a lack of physical activity or frequently “holding it” can also create issues.
- Medications. Prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines and supplements are typically the first thing a doctor scrutinizes, especially when a patient’s potty problems are new. Opioids, for example, slow everything in the body, including the bowels.
- Dietary changes. Certain foods, especially those high in fat and protein and low in fiber, lead to intestinal sluggishness. Among the worst offenders are alcohol, processed and fried foods, refined sugars, eggs, dairy and red meat.
- Poor hydration. When we don’t drink enough water during the day, or we sip dehydrating alternatives like caffeinated teas, coffee and sodas, the body pulls fluids from other sources like cells, blood, tissue and—you guessed it—the intestine. As a result, stools become dry and hard to pass.
Q: How can I get things moving again?
A: “If you develop constipation or experience any changes in your bowels, the first step should be to speak with your doctor,” says Dr. Dewhirst. A physician can help eliminate from the list of suspects any serious underlying conditions and offer safe treatment options.
- Drink enough water. Slugging plenty of water helps prevent toilet troubles and is essential to overall health. Men should be downing about 15.5 cups daily and women about 11.5 cups. For every cup of coffee, 12-ounce soda or two cups of black tea consumed, you’ll want to pour another cup of H20.
- Eat plenty of fiber. Incorporate lots of fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes into your diet. These natural sources of fiber bulk up and soften stool by absorbing water and solidifying waste, making it easier to pass. “It’s best to get fiber directly from food whenever possible, but in certain cases, fiber supplements may be needed,” says Dr. Dewhirst, warning that these should be taken under a doctor’s supervision, as fiber can worsen some constipation.
- Intervene with medicines. Over-the-counter laxatives work by either bulking up or softening stool or by stimulating the intestinal muscles. These medications are generally considered safe, even with long-term use, but should always be taken under a doctor’s watch, as too much can be dangerous. For chronic constipation, the doc may prescribe a medication to draw water into the intestine and speed up bowel movements.
Try This! Keep a food diary, noting the exact foods you eat, any medications you take, and the symptoms you experience. Looking over these details can assist you and your doctor in discovering the root of your bowel problems.
“Sudden constipation can be a warning sign of something much more serious—the same goes with diarrhea,” says Dr. Dewhirst. If you notice blood or mucus in your stool or experience severe abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting that lasts for more than a few days, get checked out by a physician. “We all can have changes in our bowels from various illnesses or stress, but most of these tend to resolve within a day or two.” The bottom line? Pay attention to your poo.