Constipation: What to Do If You Can’t Poop

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Constipation is quite common, affecting almost 20% of people every year (Cirino, 2019). There are so many different factors that affect the nature of a person’s bowel movements, ranging from exercise and eating habits, gender, age, and overall health status. A set number of bowel movements a person should have doesn’t necessarily exist, as what is normal for one person may be abnormal for another. Most people have their own routine, and deviating significantly from their regular pattern can indicate something is wrong.

Not only does constipation cause infrequent bowel movements, but they can also be hard and difficult to pass. This excessive straining and time on the toilet is not healthy and can lead to numerous issues, such as rectal bleeding (Cirino, 2019).

Causes of Constipation

The causes of constipation vary greatly. As an acute condition, it could be caused by something as simple as dehydration or eating foods with too little fibre. In more serious chronic cases, constipation can be the result of stress, hormonal changes, spinal injuries, muscle problems, cancers, or other structural problems affecting the digestive tract.

The main job of your colon is to absorb water from food as it’s passing through the digestive system, creating stool (or waste). The muscles of the colon eventually propel the waste out through the rectum to be eliminated, but if the stool remains in the colon too long, it can become hard and difficult to pass (Moores, 2019).

High Fibre Diet

One of the most common pieces of advice for people suffering from constipation is to eat more fibre. Dietary fibre is the name given to the non-digestible carbohydrates in plants. It can be found in all plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds. It is generally recommended that men eat 38 grams of fiber per day, and that women eat 25 grams (DeSalvo, 2016).

Even though your body can’t actually digest fibre, eating enough of it is important for maintaining gut health. Dietary fibre increases the size of your stools, and makes them softer! These types of stools are much healthier, as they move through your bowels more quickly and are easier to pass.

Soluble Fibre

Soluble fibre is found in oat bran, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and peas, as well as some fruits and vegetables. Soluble fibre absorbs water and forms a gel-like substance, which helps the stool pass smoothly through the bowels and improves its form and consistency.

Insoluble Fibre

Insoluble fibre is found in oat bran, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and peas, as well some fruits and vegetables. This fibre bulks up your stool and acts like a brush, sweeping the bowels to move everything out.

In general, eating enough fibre can help keep you regular. It can also improve the balance of good bacteria in your gut. This may reduce your risk of various diseases, such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes (West, 2021).

Drink More Water

Dehydration is one of the leading causes of constipation. In order for food waste to move through your digestive system, you need to have plenty of water. Without it, stool can become hard, lumpy, and difficult to pass.

Drinking certain juices may also relieve constipation in some people. Many juices made from fruits and vegetables contain dietary fiber and sorbitol, both of which help regulate bowel movements. Juices also contain large quantities of water, which may help soften hard stool while keeping the body hydrated (NIDDK, 2018).

Drink Coffee

While coffee may have a laxative effect in some people, whether it’s the coffee or the caffeine is unclear. Coffee’s effect is not solely due to caffeine, since decaffeinated coffee has shown the same or an even greater effect. In addition, most people don’t have to poop after drinking other caffeinated beverages, such as soda or energy drinks. Either way, including coffee as part of your routine can certainly help stimulate a bowel movement (McDermott, 2017).

Exercise Regularly

Regular and consistent exercise helps relieve constipation by lowering the amount of time it takes for food to move through the large intestine, which limits the amount of water your body gets a chance to absorb from the stool. Another possible mechanism for the positive effect on constipation is an increase in blood flow throughout the digestive system as a result of exercising (Tantawy, 2017).

Constipation - A woman stands holding a weight and yoga mat flexing her arm.

Constipation: Ask Your Doctor About Trying a Laxative

Laxatives can help relieve and prevent constipation, but not all laxatives are safe for long-term use. Overuse of certain laxatives can lead to dependency and decreased bowel function, so be sure to have a conversation with your doctor before beginning the use of any laxative (Wald, 2017).

Oral Osmotics

Osmotics work by drawing water into the colon, allowing for easier passage of the stool.  Examples are Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia and Miralax). Side effects can include bloating, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, gas, and increased thirst.

Oral bulk formers

These bulk formers absorb water to form soft, bulky stool, prompting normal contraction of intestinal muscles. Examples include Metamucil, Citrucel, FiberCon, and Benefiber. Side effects can be bloating, gas, cramping, and even increased constipation if not taken with enough water.

Oral Stool Softeners

Stool softeners add moisture to stool to allow strain-free bowel movements. Examples of these are Colace and Surfak. A potential side effect is electrolyte imbalance with prolonged use.

Oral Stimulants

Stimulants trigger rhythmic contractions of the intestinal muscles to expel stool from the body. Examples are Dulcolax and Senokot, and side effects may include belching, cramping, diarrhea, nausea, and urine discolouration.

Rectal Suppositories

Suppositories are a very direct way of triggering rhythmic contractions of intestinal muscles and softening stool. Dulcolax and Pedia-Lax are two popular brands. Side effects may include rectal irritation, diarrhea, and cramping.

Invest in a Pooping Stool

Getting into a squat position while pooping can be highly advantageous when trying to poop. Bring a small footstool into your bathroom the next time you need to poop. Placing your feet on a stool in front of the toilet while you poop — so your body is essentially in a squatting position instead of in a seated position —can help you pass stool without straining (Cirino, 2019).

Avoid Alcohol

Alcohol works to reduce the secretion of antidiuretic hormone, which is a signal to the body to hold on to more water. When someone has less of this hormone, they tend to urinate more. Thus, dehydration from alcohol consumption can contribute to constipation because the body needs water for stool to absorb and stay mobile. Drinking alcohol can have an inhibitory effect on peristalsis, meaning that It can slow down gastrointestinal motility (Nall, 2019).

Lifestyle Changes that Can Help You Poop More Regularly

Don’t try to make all these changes at once, but here is a list of suggestions to add to your daily routine. These small tweaks can help improve constipation (Cafasso, 2018).

  • Eat meals around the same time each day.
  • Drink a big glass of water right after you wake up.
  • Try adding bran cereal to your breakfast some mornings.
  • Do a little light exercise (as simple as walking) after breakfast.
  • Play with a new recipe using high-fibre foods like beans and legumes.
  • Pack a piece of fruit to bring to work as a snack.
  • Substitute whole wheat bread for your white bread.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • If you have the urge to poop, do not resist or ‘hold’ it.
  • Try to schedule a little time at regular intervals for a bowel movement.

Can you Die from Constipation?

While it is uncommon, a fecal impaction could occur, which is a large, hard mass of stool that gets stuck so badly in your colon or rectum that you can’t push it out. This is a serious medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention.

When to See a Doctor

If your constipation is ever accompanied by symptoms such as severe or constant abdominal pain, vomiting, blood in the stool, or significant bloating, you should seek medical help. Additionally, if constipation lingers for more than three weeks, it’s time to speak to your doctor about treatment options (Cedars-Sinai, 2020).

References

Cafasso, J. 2018. Treating chronic constipation: Lifestyle tips and therapy options. https://www.healthline.com/health/cic/lifestyle-tips-and-therapy-options

Cedars-Sinai. 2020. When to see a doctor for constipation. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/blog/constipation.html

Cirino, E. 2019. How to make yourself poop. https://www.healthline.com/health/digestive-health/how-to-make-yourself-poop

DeSalvo, K. 2016. Dietary guidelines for Americans. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26746707/

McDermott, A. 2017. Is coffee a laxative? https://www.healthline.com/health/is-coffee-a-laxative

Moores, D. 2019. What you should know about constipation. https://www.healthline.com/health/constipation

Nall, R. 2019. Can alcohol cause or help relieve constipation? https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol-and-constipation

NIDDK. 2018. Symptoms & causes of constipation. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/constipation/symptoms-causes

Tantawy, S. 2017. Effects of a proposed physical activity and diet control to manage constipation in middle-aged obese women. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5734236/

Wald, A. 2017. Management of chronic constipation in adults. http://www.uptodate.com/home

West, H. 2021. Does Fiber Relieve or Cause Constipation? A Critical Look. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/fiber-and-constipation-truth