They’ll only make your clogged pipes worse.
By Stella Katsipoutis
We all have those days when it's so tough to have a bowel movement that even the throes of childbirth look like a cakewalk. In fact, it happens more often than you think: According to the Women's Health Foundation, more than 4 million Americans suffer from frequent constipation. And as luck would have it, women are three times more likely to get blocked up than men. Some doctors speculate it's because our colons are slightly longer, adding more twists and turns—and potential roadblocks—to our digestive tracts.
But while the bloating and abdominal pain associated with a gridlocked gut may be common, the symptoms aren't something you should simply flush down the drain. "Very severe constipation is not only very uncomfortable, but it can also lead to blockage of your colon (obstipation), which then may require more invasive treatment than laxatives alone," says Lee Ann Chen, M.D., a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center. Translation: The last thing you want to do when there's a kink in your pipes is partake in anything that might plug you up even more. To help move things along when you just can't go, make it a point to avoid these poop-blocking behaviors:
If you want your inner plumbing to flow smoothly, you have to feed it the right type of food. It's no secret that processed foods are high in fat, which slows down digestion and contributes to constipation. But, according to Toyia James-Stevenson, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Indiana University Health, they're also loaded with fructans—carbohydrates that improve the shelf life of packaged foods but destroy our natural digestive processes. That's because our intestines don't have the enzymes that are necessary to properly break them down. "Fructans are found in several common foods like breads, pastas, and crackers," she says, "and they have been linked to causing GI symptoms like bloating, constipation, diarrhea and gas."
Rather than cracking open a bag of who-knows-what's-in-these chips, set your sights on gastro-friendly grub that's high in fiber and comes straight from the earth. These include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, brown rice, wheat, and oats. "I tell my patients to aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day," says Theodore Sy, M.D., board-certified gastroenterologist at Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, Calif. "Fiber can sometimes cause bloating and gas, so it is wise to slowly increase the amount in your diet until you reach the recommended amount."
While you might need an early-morning coffee fix or a nightly wine-and-dine for your sanity, swigging excess caffeine and alcohol could rob your body of the hydration it needs to have a proper bowel movement. "Drinking alcohol inhibits anti-diuretic hormone (ADH), and in doing this it causes diuresis, or urination," says Bhavesh Shah, M.D., medical director of interventional gastroenterology at Memorial Medical Center in Long Beach. "More diuresis can lead to dehydration, which can make the symptoms of constipation worse. Likewise, caffeine is a stimulant that can cause the opposite effect of diarrhea in some individuals."
Water might not exactly be a beverage that'll turn your mood around on a dime, but it's the best thing to pour in your glass when you're feeling stopped up. "Adequate daily fluid intake is essential, and the average healthy woman should try to consume at least 91 ounces of water daily," says James-Stevenson. If you like to have options in terms of flavor, prune juice is the go-to alternative to the clear stuff for constipation relief.
Trying to pass gas through an already backed-up colon isn't exactly a thrill ride. Actually, it can be downright painful. And since milky products are notorious for making you feel bloated when they're consumed, you'll avoid a whole lot of discomfort if you just say no to dairy when you're having trouble going No. 2. "These symptoms are due to deficiency of the enzyme lactase in the gut needed to break down [the lactose in] dairy into simple sugars that are absorbed by the small intestines," says James-Stevenson. "Dairy products that are high in lactose include cow's milk, ice cream, creams, and processed cheeses (like American and cottage cheese)."
For those of us who can't get by without our Greek yogurt, the good news is that not all dairy has to be off-limits: "Good alternatives with lower amounts of lactose include lactose-free milk; sherbets; 'hard' cheeses, like Swiss, parmesan and blue; and yogurt," says James-Stevenson.
If you've ever gotten the runs while running, you know that exercise has a regulating effect on the body. Inactivity does the complete opposite: "A low level of physical activity is a major risk factor for constipation," says James-Stevenson. "This is likely related to decreased gut movement and less blood flow to the gut." So if your pooping schedule isn't quite up to par, skipping out on your fitness routine isn't going to make your situation any better.
"Exercise increases blood flow to the vital organs of the body, including the digestive tract, and increases your metabolism," says Shah. Any type of exercise is helpful in combatting constipation—including walking, running, biking, swimming, yoga, and more—so pick your favorite and go nuts. (The Slim, Sexy, Strong Workout DVD is the fast, flexible workout you've been waiting for!)
"Iron and calcium supplements can cause constipation, as they can both slow down the contractions of the GI system," says Joann Kwah, M.D., attending gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. But proceed with caution: These vitamins are typically recommended by doctors if you have a specific deficiency. So if you have a medical condition that requires you to take them and the side effects are kicking you right in the gut, you can always ask your physician for alternative options (like eating more of these foods high in iron).
"It may be that you need a laxative to help you tolerate these side effects, or perhaps the dose or formulation of these supplements can be adjusted to improve their tolerability," says Chen. "Sometimes minor lifestyle changes are sufficient to overcome the constipation. Each case is different." If you're taking the supplements simply as a preventive measure and not for a medical reason, then it should be safe to ease up on your dosage. But when in doubt, always talk to your doc first.
If you're taking over-the-counter painkillers on the daily and the struggle of going to the bathroom is oh-so real, then you might want to take a second look at what's in your medicine cabinet. "Several medications can contribute to constipation, including over-the-counter and prescription NSAID pain relievers such as ibuprofen and naproxen," says James-Stevenson.
This one's an easy fix: Discontinuing meds like Motrin and Aleve and making the switch to acetaminophen should help unclog your pipes. But again, always consult with your doctor before making any big decisions—especially if you're on a strict course of medication prescribed by your doctor for a preexisting condition.
Pharmacy shelves are packed to the gills with different types of laxatives. At first glance, they might seem like the magic wand you need to make your poop-less bathroom visits disappear. But not all of these meds are created equal, and depending on them too much for relief can do more harm than good. "Your body can get used to relying on stimulant laxatives, like Dulcolax and Senna, in order to have a bowel movement if these types of laxatives are used on a long-term basis, as your colon can lose the ability to contract on its own," says Shah. This is just one of a host of side effects associated with prolonged laxative use, which include electrolyte imbalances, seizures, heart arrhythmias, muscle aches, and more.
To be on the safe side, follow the dosing instructions on the box, and don't use any type of laxative for more than a week or two without telling your doctor first. They might recommend that you take a different type of laxative (like an osmotic laxative, such as Miralax) or fiber-bulking agents (like Metamucil or Citrucel) instead. According to James-Stevenson, these are "considered safe for short- and long-term treatment of constipation symptoms." Regular probiotic use can safely stave off difficult dumps, too. (Here are the best probiotics for your health.)
If altering your diet or activity isn't solving your poop problems at the end of the day, don't wave it off: "A change in your bowel habits can sometimes be a sign of something more ominous occurring with your health, such as colorectal cancer," says Chen. "If you notice a consistent change, inform your doctor."