As many as one in five people experiences chronic constipation, a condition that’s even more common in women as they get older. It’s something that can easily creep up on you if you’re not paying attention, with many factors, from diet to other health conditions, contributing to the problem.
What is Constipation?
There are many definitions for constipation; it can be defined as passing hard stools or decreasing* in the number of bowel motions or difficulty in passing stool.
Medically, constipation is defined as passing bowel motions less than three times weekly while severe constipation is defined as passing as less as one bowel motion weekly.
What you eat and when has a significant bearing on regularity. Here’s what doctors advise:
- Don’t skip meals. Dieting women often get constipated because they eat only one large meal a day, says Joanne A.P. Wilson, MD, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC. “Eating stimulates the reflex that causes stuff to move forward in the gut.” When nothing moves, you can’t pass stool. Breakfast is particularly important, because that’s what starts your digestive juices flowing every day.
- Fill your meals with fruit. Fiber creates soft, mobile stools, says Elaine Feldman, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine in Augusta. “You don’t have to eat a pound of bran a day; just treat yourself to three servings of vegetables and two fruits a day and some whole wheat bread.”
- Introduce fiber slowly. “Too much fiber too fast may solve your constipation, but it can replace it with gassiness, bloating, and diarrhea,” Dr. Feldman says. (Check out our guide to belly-friendly foods.)
- Meanwhile, try a supplement. Some women complain that they can’t digest that much fiber. If that describes you, or if you’re working fiber into your diet, try a fiber supplement such as Metamucil, Citrucel, or Fibercon, says Linda Lee, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
- Drink a lot. Drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily to soften the stool, says Robyn Karlstadt, MD, a gastroenterologist at Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia. Fill an empty 64-oz soda bottle with water and keep it at your desk, then help yourself until it’s gone.
- Do daily exercise, like a brisk half-hour walk.
- Visit the toilet for 15 minutes in the morning, even if you are unable to have a bowel movement. This relaxes and stimulates your digestive system.
- Sit quietly for 15 minutes after eating a meal to aid in digestion.