It’s not something most people talk about or tend to admit they have, but chronic constipation is a problem for about 42 million Americans, according to a study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
Although experts agree that the Standard American Diet— one that is high in fat, animal products, and processed foods— is one of the most common causes of constipation, there might be other underlying conditions to blame.
Here, are 7 ways to relieve constipation and keep your colon healthy.
1. Bulk up on fiber.
“As we get older, our muscles throughout our bodies become less efficient,” Dr. Kumar Desai, a gastroenterologist at Los Robles Hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif., said.
Just like any other muscle, the colon needs to stay strong, too. And the best way to do that is to get it moving with fiber.
Most people get only about 15 grams of fiber a day, even though the recommendation is at least 25 to 35 grams. Some experts say even up to 40 grams is ideal.
High-fiber foods include artichokes, lentils, beans, pears, raspberries, nuts, whole grain breads, and flax seed. Prunes and figs are also great choices because they’re not only high in fiber, but they have sorbitol, which can act as a laxative, said Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy Of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
2. Take a supplement.
If you’re still coming up short, a fiber supplement can add about 5 more grams to your diet. Although they’re safe to use every day, it’s still a good idea to ask your physician about it first.
3. Drink enough water.
“When you have a lot of fiber, if you don’t have enough liquid, you’re going to be backed up,” Sheth said.
It’s a good idea to cut back on energy drinks and alcohol, which are diuretics and can cause constipation.
Plus, although coffee can act as a stimulant and make you go, too much can have the reverse effect. There’s no magic number, but a good rule of thumb is to drink half your weight in ounces of water. So if you’re 120 pounds, drink 60 ounces a day, for example.
Moving your body can help to move your bowels too. Exercise most days of the week and be sure to drink even more water to keep things moving.
5. Get screened.
Constipation could be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), food sensitivities, allergies or intolerances or a bacterial or yeast overgrowth. It could also be a sign of colon cancer, which 50,000 people die from each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Plus, some women who have had multiple children may have a pelvic floor disorder. Caused by a loss of muscle function, the condition is often easily misdiagnosed, Desai said.
If you recognize even the slightest change in your bathroom habits, see your doctor. It’s also a good idea to keep a food diary, especially because there are no tests to diagnose food sensitivities, allergies or intolerances, for example, Desai said.
6. Cope with stress.
Stress is a contributing factor to a slew of health conditions and diseases and constipation is no exception. The good news is that stress-reduction techniques like deep breathing, meditation and simply making time to relax and have fun can do a world of good.
“Finding 15 or 30 minutes a day to unwind is very helpful to keep your mind, body and spirit in balance,” Desai said.
Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.