Constipation, Explained in Just 2 Minutes

Feeling, er, plugged up? Here’s what’s going on in your bowels.

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Constipation is one of the most common gastro gripes in the country. It’s not a condition on its own, but a symptom of other things happening in the gut.

Most people associate constipation with having infrequent bowel movements, but the exact definition of constipation involves the following symptoms:

  • Straining to pass a bowel movement

  • Passing hard, lumpy stool

  • Or feeling like your bowel movement is never completely “finished.”

Sometimes, constipation is no biggie—just the result of last night’s celebratory dinner that included more fried food than your body is used to. (Here are more foods that can cause constipation.) However, if you regularly experience constipation, you may want to investigate.

Chronic constipation can signal a bigger problem, whether it’s a gastrointestinal disorder like irritable bowel syndrome, or an unhealthy diet (which could be doing more long-term damage to your health besides digestion).

Here’s what’s actually happening when you feel constipated: Your stool moves through your intestines thanks to muscle contractions. Sometimes, this movement is too slow, which could be the result of dehydration, a change in diet or activity level, or a certain medication.

The problem with sluggish stool is that it loses water as it moves. Water in your stool helps move it along through your pipes, and without that fluid, the stool becomes hard, dry, lumpy, and painful to pass.

As your stool drags its feet to get through (and out of) your digestive tract, you might feel bloated and uncomfortable. Often, you will sense an urge to have a bowel movement, but when you try, little to nothing actually comes out—despite straining (which, BTW, is not recommended).

Once a decent bowel movement passes, so should those uncomfortable symptoms.

You can prevent chronic constipation by drinking enough water, eating plenty of fiber from foods, and exercising regularly. If you’re still plugged up despite eating lots of fiber, talk to your doctor: It may signal a digestive disorder or other health problems.

Life is hard enough: Your BMs should be easy.