Constipated? An expert shares tips for relief and when to see a doctor.
While ordering takeout during the pandemic may have felt like self-care and meeting up with vaccinated loved ones over food may feel like catching up on a year of missed opportunities, you may be inadvertently creating poop problems for yourself.
“The stress of this past year with a global pandemic, coupled with decreased activity for many people working from home and not going to the gym, and altered eating habits can cause painful and uncomfortable or even serious bowel issues that should be addressed,” said Dr. Amy Arialis, family medicine at Advocate Medical Group.
If you’re having less than three stools per week, then you’re probably constipated, experts say. The most important thing you watch for is a deviation from your normal stool pattern. If you’re straining, pushing or having harder or smaller poops, those could also be signs of constipation.
“One person’s normal pattern may be once daily while others are every other day or three times daily,” Dr. Arialis said. “We must consider frequency of bowel movements in addition to effort to stool, consistency of stool and even volume of stool. Some patients will consider feeling constipated if they do not feel like they have had full evacuation.”
The most common factors causing constipation are decreased water intake, decreased fiber intake, eating too few fruits and vegetables and not moving enough or getting enough exercise. If you’ve suddenly switched up your daily habits, like skipping breakfast or decreasing the amount of coffee you have in the morning, that could also disrupt your gastrocolic reflex, the signal your digestive system receives from food intake or a full belly telling it to move stool out. Even things like a switch in medication or environmental factors can change your bathroom trips.
“When patients are stressed out, sometimes our bodies respond in physical ways such as constipation or even loose stools,” Dr. Arialis said. “Most people can recall a vacation or staying somewhere away from home and noticing their bowel habits are not typical.”
For the most part, drinking water, eating fruits and vegetables, and participating in regular physical activity can help prevent constipation. Other things like managing stress levels and supplementing your diet with fiber supplements may also be beneficial.
“It can be difficult and embarrassing to talk about bowel habits and patterns for children and adults alike, but it is a normal bodily habit and it’s important to bring up any changes or issues regarding bowel health,” Dr. Arialis said. “Most doctors will ask a patient about their bowel habits because it is that important.”
It’s important to be up front with your doctor about your bowel habits because there are times when constipation is a signal of an underlying health condition like colon cancer, partial bowel obstructions, or an inflammatory bowel disease like ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing persistent constipation accompanied by blood, mucous or abdominal pain.