If you deal with constipation, rest assured you’re not alone ― it’s a common issue that tends to get worse as we age. About 16 of 100 adults experience symptoms of constipation, and 33% of adults ages 60 and older deal with this not-so-fun bodily issue, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Constipation is technically defined as a gastrointestinal condition in which you have three or fewer bowel movements per week, although everyone experiences it differently. Basically, if you have trouble emptying your bowels as often as you want or feel you need to, you deal with constipation.
While most people who deal with constipation consider it an annoying fact of life (it’s the most common gastrointestinal complaint and is responsible for 2.5 million doctors’ visits annually), it can come with complications. Chronic constipation can lead to hemorrhoids (which happen when we have to strain too hard during a bowel movement), anal fissures and even rectal prolapse, which happens when part of your rectum slips down further than it’s supposed to.
Whether you deal with mild constipation or have had serious complications related to it, most of us know one thing to be true: Staying as regular as possible is ideal. For that reason, we talked to the absolute experts in GI health to find out what they do to avoid constipation and stay regular. Here’s what they had to say:
They have consistent mealtimes and periods of rest.
If you deal with constipation and you’re someone who snacks all day or goes long stretches of time without eating, finding a rhythm in your eating schedule might be helpful.
As Dr. Harmony Allison, a gastroenterologist at Tufts Medical Center, explains it, “the body’s normal rhythm of bowel movements is after a period of rest and after meals.” So for her, aiming for consistent mealtimes and a consistent period of rest are both key.
They eat fiber-rich foods.
You’ve probably heard that fiber is key to staying regular ― and it’s good advice. Fiber-rich foods are crucial, said Dr. Supriya Rao, a board-certified obesity doctor, gastroenterologist and director of medical weight loss at Lowell General Hospital.
“Fiber is a type of carbohydrate. Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables and grains will help you get your daily fiber intake,” Rao said. “Fiber promotes regularity by helping food move through your digestive system. This is because fiber absorbs water and bulks up stools, making them easier to pass.”
Fiber also adds bulk to your meals, which can help you feel full for longer periods of time, she explained. “Look for oats, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables to get your daily amount,” Rao said. “You’ll want to aim for 25 to 30 grams naturally. And try to get your daily fiber intake from whole foods before trying supplements.”
Allison added that it’s important to get both soluble and insoluble fiber. “You’ll want to have plenty of soluble fiber (psyllium husks are an example of this) and insoluble fiber, like fruits and vegetables,” she said.
They drink a lot of water.
According to every GI doctor we spoke with, water is key to reducing constipation.
“There are a few habits that are essential to good bowel movements, but the one that I mention the most is proper hydration,” said gastroenterologist Dr. Steven Batash. “You should aim for half of your body weight in ounces per day to make sure you’re drinking enough fluids.”
Looking for a specific amount of water you should be drinking? Dr. Tarun Sharma, a gastroenterologist at Gastroenterology Associates of New Jersey, said he drinks one to two liters of water every day in the name of staying regular.
Sharma said that in addition to drinking one or two liters of water per day, he exercises regularly.
“I aim for moderate exercise two to three times per week for 30 to 45 minutes. Adequate water and exercise also acts as a stimulant for proper gut peristalsis which is required for regular bowel movements,” he said.
Constipation isn’t fun for anyone, and while these tips can certainly help, if you’re dealing with chronic issues, be sure to reach out to your doctor to let them know what’s going on. They can give you more personalized tips for staying regular or refer you to a gastroenterologist or nutritionist who can help you come up with a treatment plan.