Austin Powers, the International Man of Mystery, might still be wondering “Who does number two work for?”, but understanding your bowel movements (BM) shouldn’t be a mystery. Although it doesn’t top the list of hot topics at happy hour, every year more than 2 million Americans visit their doctor due to constipation.
Constipation is typically defined as less than three bowel movements per week. For some, this may be frequent enough while others might feel significant discomfort at this rate. Common symptoms of constipation include straining, lumpy or hard stools, a sensation of incomplete stool removal after defecating, feeling of rectal blockage, or only being able to have soft/loose stools after using laxatives. Constipation frequently occurs because of slow evacuation of stool from the colon, or infrequent bowel movements. In many cases changes in lifestyle and diet can provide significant relief of symptoms (more about this later).
Although uncomfortable, constipation is not usually a serious medical problem. In some cases, however, a medical professional should address your symptoms. If you have any of the following symptoms, you may have a more serious gastrointestinal problem and should see your doctor as soon as possible:
• Blood or mucous in your stool
• Unintentional Weight loss of greater than 10 pounds in the last 3-6 months
• Severe Abdominal Pain
• Very thin stool (about the thickness of a pencil)
• Greasy or oily stool
Here are a few tips to help you get things moving:
Check your Meds: Several medications are known to cause constipation and could be wreaking havoc on your routine. Meds like iron, anti-inflammatories, and prenatal vitamins can all cause constipation. Review your medications with your physician and see if any of them may be responsible for your symptoms.
Get Regular: Although having a bowel movement isn’t an Olympic sport, your body requires significant training to alleviate constipation. Try to use the bathroom within 15-30 minutes of waking up. This is when your colon is most active and can help you push out stool. Another time to consider a BM is about half an hour after a meal. Both the brain and GI tract work together to signal the body to push your food along. This can be an easy time to empty your vault.
Change your Diet: It’s easy to make bad choices from time to time (ahem, Kristin Stewart), especially when it comes to food. Unfortunately, foods high in oil, fat, preservatives, and dairy can worsen constipation. Reducing or eliminating these foods can help decrease constipation. Increasing fiber in your diet can also help improve constipation. This means eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Aim to consume about 25 grams of fiber daily. If this is hard for you, consider a fiber supplement or powder you can mix with water.
Drink More Water: Consuming enough water is important because adequate hydration helps eliminate hard stool. Frequent consumption of soda and coffee can worsen constipation. This is because their diuretic effects eliminate the water necessary to keep stool soft. If your bloodstream is a fountain of diet coke, try to take in more water throughout the day to improve your BM’s.
Get Moving: Even though we’ve made huge strides in technology, watching the 100- meter dash doesn’t mean you’re exercising! Regular exercise for at least 20 minutes a day has been shown to significantly improve and eliminate constipation. Exercise has also been shown to help women develop regular bowel schedules and reduce abdominal pain and bloating.
Let your body and bowels adapt to change. Make an effort to implement some of these tips, and see how you are feeling after two weeks. If you are still struggling with constipation, make an appointment with your personal physician for a detailed exam.