Constipation 101

Why Can’t I Poop?

Can’t go? You’re not alone. About 20% of Americans have occasional constipation -- bowel movements less than three times a week. Or if they do poop, the output is hard, small, and painful to produce.

Sometimes, a medical disorder like irritable bowel syndrome can cause constipation. Those issues often need care and treatment from your doctor. But for many people, the problem will be short-term and easy to fix. To figure out what has you stopped up, ask yourself these questions:

Is it time to fiber up? Moving your bowels regularly takes fiber -- lots of it. We’re talking about 3 to 5 cups of fruits and vegetables every day. Go easy on meat and dairy and load up on produce. Just be sure you add it to your diet gradually. Skip fast and prepared foods. They may be quick and easy, but they’re almost always low in fiber.

How are my fluid levels? To move waste through your intestines, you gotta drink up! If you don’t drink enough water, you can get backed up.

Am I active? It’s as simple as this: Moving your body helps move your bowels, so too much time sitting can lead to trouble on the throne.

Are supplements the problem? Iron or calcium supplements can cause constipation in some people. It's more likely with calcium carbonate supplements than with calcium citrate. If you take calcium or iron supplements, take extra care to eat enough fiber, drink plenty of water, and stay active. If that doesn’t help, talk to your doctor about other options to get you going or whether you can get these nutrients through your diet instead.

Am I stressed? When your brain’s stress response systems get flipped on, it causes changes in your body. The digestive system is especially sensitive to stress, and constipation can be one response.

Whether it’s for business or pleasure, travel is stressful. When it disrupts your regular routines, especially eating patterns, your pooping can get off-schedule as well.

Do I ignore the urge? Maybe you’re too busy to stop every time your body signals it’s time to poop. Maybe you don’t like using public restrooms, or any except your own at home. Here’s the problem with ignoring the urge: Sooner or later, you may stop feeling the signals.

Does pregnancy play a role? Overall, women get constipated more often than men. That’s especially true during pregnancy, when hormone changes can easily throw off your digestive system. Add the pressure a growing baby puts on your plumbing, and it’s no surprise you have trouble going. Problems with pooping are also common after childbirth.

What about my age? The chance of having trouble moving your bowels goes up as you get older, so make a point to get more exercise, drink more water, and eat more fiber.

Are my medications part of the problem? Pain relievers, iron supplements, some antidepressants, and diuretics are just a few common drugs that can have this effect. Also on the list are meds for diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, plus some blood pressure treatments. Over-the-counter medications like antacids can also stop things up.

Could it be a more serious problem? It’s rare, but possible. Discuss it with your doctor. If you’ve ruled out other causes, he may want to explore:

  • Problems with the muscles that squeeze your colon.
  • Hormone diseases like diabetes or an over- or underactive thyroid gland.
  • Diseases that affect the nerves around your colon or rectum, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and spinal cord injuries.
  • Colon trouble. Tumors and other things that block your colon or rectum can prevent poop from moving out of your body.

WebMD Article | Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on November 13, 2017

SOURCES:

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Symptoms and Causes of Constipation," "Treatment for Constipation."

Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School: "The lowdown on constipation," "Constipation and Impaction."

Cleveland Clinic: "Constipation."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Constipation."

Mayo Clinic: "Constipation."

Kaiser Permanente: "How to prevent constipation caused by your medication."

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