Constipation is a common complaint that people bring up often with their health care providers. It’s defined as having infrequent bowel movements, difficulty passing stool and unsatisfying defecation that lasts for several weeks to months.
A healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward preventing and easing constipation, but if that’s not enough, help is available in your local pharmacy.
What should your stool look like normally?
A normal bowel movement produces stool that is smooth and soft, sometimes with cracks at the surface. A stool that’s lumpy or rock-like might indicate constipation. The Bristol Stool chart provides more detail about what to look for.
What could be causing your constipation?
While constipation can have many causes, we most commonly see it in people who:
- Don’t get enough fiber in their diet
- Are frequently dehydrated
- Don’t get enough physical activity
- Don’t eat enough throughout the day
Other people who are prone to chronic constipation include:
- Older adults
- People who take certain medications, such as opioids, some antidepressants, and blood-pressure-lowering medications
- People with mental health conditions, such as depression or eating disorders
How can you prevent constipation?
Here are four of the best things you can do to stay regular and avoid constipation:
- Eat a diet that’s high in fiber, including foods such as legumes, vegetables, fruits and whole grains, and avoid highly processed foods.
- Drink plenty of water throughout the day.
- Stay active with a regular exercise routine.
- Manage stress in a healthy way.
Always constipated? These products and changes can help.
If you experience chronic constipation, double down on the lifestyle tips above. In particular:
- Gradually increase your fiber intake to 25-35 grams per day. Start by adding extra vegetables and fruits to your meals. Get more tips and sample menus here.
- Drink a large glass of water with every meal.
- Increase your physical activity, such as going for walks more often.
If you still feel constipated after trying these changes for a week or two, you can find three types of remedies in your local pharmacy:
- Fiber supplements: Metamucil, Benefiber and Citrucel add bulk to your stool to help it move through your system. They’re available as powders to mix with water, or as capsules or tablets. For best effects, drink plenty of water when taking fiber supplements. These products can affect how well you absorb other medicines, so space your fiber supplements at least two hours apart from other medicines.
- Osmotic laxatives, such as Miralax, Dulcolax and Milk of Magnesia, increase your body’s intestinal secretions to help move your stool. These may take 2-4 days of consistent use before they start working. Don’t take them for more than two weeks without talking to your health care provider.
- Stimulant laxatives, such as Senokot and bisacodyl products, help your intestines contract to move your stool.
- Stool softeners: docusate products help your body absorb more water to soften your stool.
Two good options to try first are a fiber supplement, such as Metamucil, and an osmotic laxative, such as Miralax. If these don’t do the job, it’s OK to add other types of products, such as Senokot or docusate. Talk to your pharmacist or health care provider if you have any questions about how to use these products.
When should you see a health care provider?
If you’re still constipated after trying some of these recommendations, reach out to your health care provider. Sometimes, constipation can be caused by more serious concerns and should be evaluated by a professional. Be sure to connect with your provider if you are experiencing any of the following:
- Blood in your stool
- Severe abdominal pain
In most cases, constipation isn’t serious. But it can be uncomfortable. If your best preventive efforts fail you from time to time, you can usually get things moving again with a little extra water, a little extra fiber, a little extra movement and – if needed – a little help from your pharmacy.