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Healthy Living > digestive disorders

When you just can’t go: Constipation 101

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 08/12/2010
Last Updated: 03/19/2020

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Tuesday's post brought a flurry of emails. "Thanks for writing about a subject I'm too embarrassed to talk about," read one. And then there was this one: "I could be your friend, you know, the one who doesn't go to the bathroom for weeks. Frankly, it scares me a little."

So, I did a little more digging on the subject. And here's the deal. Some people move their bowels every day; in fact, they think they get bragging rights about it. (It's almost like bragging about how often they have sex, I swear).

But what's "normal" varies from person to person. The true meaning of "constipation" is having a bowel movement less than three times a week.

Are you wondering what causes it? I was too. And I was surprised to find it's not only when you don't get enough fiber in your diet but also can result from things like dehydration, certain medications (like narcotics and iron) and changes in routine (like travel - I suspected this one), and of course, stress (doesn't stress just mess with everything?). Of course, there are more serious causes, like certain diseases (stroke among them) and conditions (like hypothyroidism).

In an effort to make the world a happier place, here are some constipation dos and don'ts:

Do: Eat enough fiber (At least 2 cups of fruits and 2-1/2 cups of veggies per day) Good sources: beans, whole grains and bran cereals, fresh fruits like apples, peaches, raspberries, tangerines; veggies like cabbage, broccoli, spinach and Brussels sprouts. A word to the wise: if you're not used to eating fiber, add it slowly to your diet to avoid the build-up of gas and bloating.

Don't: Eat foods that have little or no fiber, like ice cream, cheese, meat, and processed foods. Even milk can be binding.

Do: Eat prunes. They're packed with fiber and can add bulk to stool and make it pass more quickly through the colon. They also contain a natural laxative called sorbitol.

Don't: Rely on laxatives. They're okay for a short period of time, but if you begin to rely on them, you need to slowly stop using them so that your colon retains its natural ability to contract. The exception: bulk-forming laxatives are okay and make life, well, easier.

Do: Drink plenty of water. It prevents dehydration, which is a cause of constipation. By the way, things coffee, soda or and alcohol also cause dehydration, so try to go light(er) on these if you are susceptible.

Don't: Put off a trip to the bathroom. I know the urge can hit at inopportune times.  Sorry, but waiting will only make the problem worse. So go ahead and tell the person on the other end of the phone you'll call them back. Or be brave and enter the dreaded public restroom.

Do: Get plenty of exercise. Walking, running and even yoga and stretching can be your colon's friend, freeing it up to do its best work.

You may also want to read what our resident experts has to say here and here.


for people experiencing a lot of constipation -- it could be a magnesium deficiency. I recently learned that taking a magnesium supplement (magnesium citrate in powder form) can really help with constipation!

Thanks for the magnesium tip. I seem to remember hearing that somewhere, but neglected to include it in this post. Appreciate it!

I had this issue when I was pregnant and prunes did fix me right up.

let's hear it for the power of prunes...seems to be everyone's favorite remedy!

Great article. Learned a lot. My defense against constipation is tried and true prunes. Yes guys it really does work.

Personal standbys for this delicate condition are dried apricots and fresh fruit. Noshing on 4-5 kiwifruit seems to sort things out, but I live in the Land of Kiwifruit, so it is more cost effective here.

So good to point out that certain medications can mess up your system. I'm surprised that doctors don't always explain that.

I agree - doctors and/or pharmacists would do us a big favor if they did explain the possible consequences. When I was taking medication for my blood pressure, my doctor said it was improbable after I told him I had gotten very constipated - and now, I'm hearing and reading about that reaction more and more.

I have not had to deal with this problem ever since I began treatment for underactive thyroid, brought on after being under the Chernobyl nuclear cloud in France, whose existence was, by the way, denied by French television. But this is a great post, lots of good advice here. I'm having my husband read it.

Sheryl -- You manage to tackle the most important -- but borderline taboo -- health topics out there. Just started to grin when I saw the subject of this post and will refrain from saying something like, You go, girl!

Don't refrain from saying that -it's the perfect statement :)

Excellent advice. It's not a common problem for me, but when I'm traveling it's a different story.

Great info on something everyone has to deal with at one time or another. My defense: Autumn Harvest wheat cereal. Works every time. :-) But I love fruits and veggies and other whole grains, too.

Well, Jane, I'll have to see if my local supermarket carries your cereal-cureall. Thanks for the tip.

"Doesn't stress just mess with everything?" Sing it sister!

A top 30 hit, that song!

I have done all of the things suggested above though I still am not able to go. I don't know why however... Any suggestions?

I have always been constipated since childhood. I drink very little milk, eat lots of veggies & fruit, I'm a big walker & my doctor has me on Polyethylene Glycol 3350 NF which is a prescription Miralax powder. I have hypothyroidism, but I'm on pills for this.

The last 3 days I have been constipated to the point of some pain. In the last 3 days I have taken 2 enemas a day. Now get this, all the water that has gone up has NOT come out.

Help, anybody!!!

My doctor said to increase my medication (synthroid) a little bit..... I also saw online that Hypothyroidism can cause constipation.

Im 22 years old. I'm not able to go since a week. Im so scared. Can anyone please help mr..

I was diagnosed with Hirschbrungs disease when I was only 19. It was a bag or laxatives. Either way my doctor told me I was going to be on medication so go for the laxatives. I eat and stick by the diet above and try to leave it but then I'm into an awful state. My stomach is packed but nothing will come out. Like wise nothing will come out my back passage. It is horrendous. I know there is nothing that can be done except get a bag and how sexy is that going to be. So I think I'm stuck on laxatives for the rest of my life. Recently I had to go into hospital for something else so my medication was controlled on me. They checked to see if I moved every day and of course I didn't . I explained what I had. But I was looked at like I had just picked a name out of my head. Eventually after 7 days I was given two. It is an awful way to be. I dread the thoughts of getting older with this and not being able to manage it. But other than what I am doing, does anyone know what I can do.? And I've also done the unmentionable here with olive oil and gloves.


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