Constipation can be painful and frustrating if you’re experiencing it day after day (after day after day). You may worry something’s wrong in your body that’s causing this traffic jam downstairs.
Most of your bowel woes can be traced back to your lifestyle and not necessarily a more serious GI issue. For example, “to have a regular bowel movement is very dependent on how you eat,” says Anthony Starpoli, MD, a gastroenterologist in New York City.
Not sure what you’re doing wrong to cause all this constipation frustration? Here’s what habits experts recommend to keep your #2 on the move.
1. They eat meals consistently.
“A regular eating schedule will more than likely deliver a regular bowel movement schedule,” says Dr. Starpoli. Getting all of your calories from one or two large meals in the middle of the day may hinder healthy bowel function. Try to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and a couple healthy snacks) at consistent times, spaced out throughout the day. This may make you more likely to have a BM at the same time every day. (See, everyone loves structure, even your colon.)
Of course, what you eat is just as important as when you eat. Here are some constipating foods you should avoid.
2. They drink plenty of water.
Generally speaking, shoot for six to eight glasses of water a day, but keep in mind water can also come from your food (e.g. watermelon, cucumber, lettuce, and clear soup). Learn more here about how much water you should drink daily.
When tallying up your fluid intake throughout the day, don’t count diuretics like booze and caffeine. “[These drinks] will cause you to go to the bathroom and urinate more often,” says Dr. Starpoli, “therefore putting you in a negative fluid balance.”
3. They eat a wide variety of fiber.
By now, it’s no secret that dietary fiber is constipation’s greatest nemesis. In a large-scale review of studies from 1946 to 2011, researchers found that increasing fiber intake consistently improved stool frequency better than a placebo.
Despite this being a well-known solution to constipation, most Americans still aren’t eating enough fiber: On average, Americans eat 16 grams per day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s about half of the recommended 25 to 38 grams (yikes).
“The idea is to have soluble and insoluble fiber,” says Dr. Starpoli. Getting a balance of both of these is crucial to bowel and overall health. Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like consistency as it moves through the digestive system; it’s found in oats, barley, beans, and some fruits and veggies. Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve, so it adds bulk to your stool. You can find it in wheat bran, whole grains, and most vegetables. “It’s the insoluble fiber that will make for a better, bulkier, efficient bowel movement,” says Dr. Starpoli. Many healthy foods, in fact, contain both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Whole grains may be an especially powerful tool in disrupting constipation, as are fruits like plums and pears. (Yes, prunes really do help relieve constipation.) And while fiber supplements may boost your overall fiber intake, these drinks or capsules don’t have the other benefits of fiber-rich foods, such as helping you stay full or providing other valuable micronutrients, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
4. They live an active lifestyle.
Along with other health benefits of exercise, getting your steps in daily may aid in healthy bowel movements. A 2014 study of over 30,000 adolescents found that those who were sedentary for over four hours a day and did not reach the recommended amount of physical activity were more likely to experience constipation than people who were less sedentary.
“We know from patients who are hospitalized or infirmed in nursing homes don’t move around a lot,” says Dr. Starpoli. “The lack of mobility affects your lack of motility.” FYI, colon motility refers to the triggering of muscle contractions for digestion when you eat.
Aim for about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, according to the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. That amounts to about a half hour a day. NBD, right?