Constipation is a very common condition and it causes irregular bowel movements. Medically, it is described as fewer than three bowel movements in a week, and the condition is considered chronic if it lasts for more than six months. If you are having trouble with your bowel movements, changes to diet and exercise habits, as well as over-the-counter medicines for acute cases, can help you regulate bowel movements.
Changing Your Diet to Regulate Bowel Movements
Add more fiber to your diet. Dietary fiber is a portion of plant-based foods that your body can neither digest nor absorb. Adding more fiber to your diet helps move material through your digestive tract and also adds bulk to your bowel movements. This can help regulate your bowels.
Dietary fiber comes in two forms — insoluble and soluble.
- Insoluble fiber is not water soluble, so it helps add bulk to stool, which helps maintain regular movement of your bowels. Foods rich in insoluble fiber include whole wheat flour, wheat bran, nuts (pecans, almonds, Brazil nuts), beans, and vegetables (such as cauliflower, green beans, leafy greens, and potatoes)
- Soluble fiber means that the fiber is water soluble, the mix of which creates a gel-like substance that can help promote the movement of material through your bowels. Since this fiber absorbs water, it also cuts down on runny stools by solidifying them. Foods rich in soluble fiber include oats, peas, beans (navy, pinto, black, kidney), apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley, and psyllium.
You can also purchase over-the-counter fiber supplements to help regulate bowel movements. Some of the most common are products containing psyllium (such as Metamucil), which is a good source of soluble fiber.
Avoid processed foods. Processed and “fast” foods can contribute to chronic constipation and irregular bowel movements. These foods are often high in fat and low in fiber and do not offer much nutrition. Staying away from processed foods help regulate bowel movements. Foods to stay away from include:
- Potato chips, french fries, and similar foods do not offer much nutrition and have very little fiber. Go for roasted or baked sweet potato “fries” or air-popped popcorn instead.
- Sausage, red meat, and luncheon meats often contain a high level of fat and salt. Look for lean meats such as fish, chicken, and turkey.
- Junk foods. Foods with a high level of fat and sugar can cause constipation. Your body will try to get its calories from fat first, which will slow digestion.
- Processed or “enriched” grains. White bread, pastries, many pastas, and breakfast cereals often include flour that has been stripped of much of its fiber and nutritional value. Look for whole grains instead.
Drink plenty of fluids. Hard, dry stools are a common cause of constipation, so the more fluids you drink, the easier it will be to regulate bowel movements. You should aim to drink 2-3 liters of fluid each day. While most of your fluid should come from water, you can also include fruit and vegetable juices, as well as clear soup broths to meet your daily requirements.
- It’s especially important to drink enough water when you increase the fiber in your diet.
- Avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages while you’re experiencing constipation. Caffeinated beverages like coffee and sodas, as well as alcohol, are diuretics. Diuretic dehydrate your body by causing fluid loss through increased urination. This may make constipation worse.
- Dehydration is also associated with a condition known as “retentive constipation,” especially in children.With this condition, initial constipation due to dry, hardened stool is worsened by stagnating in the colon/rectum where additional water is drawn out, hardening it even further. This can lead to a vicious cycle of irregularity.
Avoid cheese and dairy products. Cheese and dairy products usually contain lactose, which many people are very sensitive to. This lactose can cause gas, bloating, and constipation for some people. If you’re having trouble with constipation and irregular bowel movements, cut cheese, milk, and most other dairy products out of your diet until you’re feeling better. The exception to this is yogurt, especially yogurt containing live probiotics.
Eat more yogurt. Yogurt that contains live probiotics such as Bifidobacterium longum or Bifidobacterium animalis has been shown in studies to assist with regularity for some gastrointestinal conditions, including constipation and some diarrheal diseases. Try adding a cup of yogurt to your daily diet.
- The bacteria in yogurt are thought to alter the microflora in the gut. This reduces the amount of time it takes for your food to be digested and move through your system.
- Other fermented and cultured foods such as kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut also contain beneficial bacteria that may aid in digestion and help regulate bowel movements.
Other Ways to Regulate Bowel Movements
Exercise regularly. Inactivity is one of the major lifestyle causes associated with irregular bowel movements. Studies have shown increased activity leads to a faster, more effective metabolism. If you can, try taking hourly walk-breaks to regulate bowel movements. Even 15-20 minutes of walking a day can help.
- If you are severely constipated, this may be somewhat uncomfortable, but try not to get discouraged. It’s better than another day of constipation.
- If that amount of time doesn’t work for you because of other responsibilities, don’t worry. Just try to increase the amount of faster-than-normal walking you do whenever possible.
Check any medications you’re taking. Narcotic pain medications, some antidepressants, some anticonvulsants, aluminum-containing antacids, and some blood pressure medications are just a few examples of medications that commonly lead to constipation and irregularity.
- You should always consult your doctor before making any changes to a prescription regimen, but in some cases your doctor may be able to switch you to a drug without constipation as a side effect.
Take magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is one of the causes associated with irregular bowel movements. Taking magnesium can be very effective in relieving constipation and regulating bowel movements. It helps draw water into the bowel and soften the stool so it can move through your intestines.
Consult with your doctor before taking magnesium supplements, as it can interact with medications such as antibiotics, muscle relaxants, and blood pressure medications. In addition to dietary sources, such as broccoli and legumes, there are several other ways to take magnesium.
- You can take magnesium by adding a teaspoon (or 10-30 grams) of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) to 6-8 ounces of water. Mix well and drink. This mixture can taste unpleasant to some people.
- Magnesium hydroxide, also known as milk of magnesia, is also effective at treating constipation.
Try a different position. Aboriginal people tend to have bowel movements while squatting, and this position can be helpful. When you are on the toilet, use a stool or the edge of the bathtub to prop your feet up.
- You want to bring your knees in as close to your chest as possible. This increases the pressure on your bowels and may ease the passage of a stool.
Don’t ignore your body’s rhythms. Your body will tell you when it is ready to have a bowel movement. There is a wide range of what is considered “normal” for bowel movement frequency. Many people average 1-2 bowel movements per day, but others may go only 3 times a week. As long as your body feels comfortable, there’s no need to worry about how often you have a bowel movement.
- Constipation can be caused or aggravated by not having a bowel movement when you feel the need to. If you frequently delay your bowel movements, you could cause your body to stop sending the signal to go. Delaying a bowel movement will also make it more difficult to pass later.
Improve the tone of your pelvic floor muscles. Especially for women who have been through multiple pregnancies, weakened pelvic floor muscles can lead to irregularity and even an overactive bladder. You can strengthen these muscles with different exercises either standing or laying down.
- While laying in your back, elevate your pelvis in the air with your knees flexed at 90° angles. Thrust your pelvis off the ground while clenching your buttocks.
- While standing, assume a squat position and pull in the muscles of your glutes.
- For either exercise, do ten repetitions while holding each for five to ten seconds. Perform three sets daily.
Try yoga. There are several yoga poses you can try to help stimulate your bowel and get your body in a comfortable position to have a bowel movement. They can increase the internal pressure on your intestines and help the bowels move the stool more easily. Among these are the following:
- Pavanamuktasana: In a reclined position, stretch your legs out in front of you. Bring one knee up to your chest, and hold it there with your hands. Pick one leg and pull your knee against your chest and flex or wiggle your toes. Hold that position for 5 to 10 breaths, then repeat with the other leg.
- Baddha Konasana: In a seated position, bend your knees and bring your feet together so the soles are touching, and grasp your toes with your hands. Flutter your legs quickly, then lean forward so that your forehead touches the floor. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
- Uttanasana: From a standing position, keep your legs straight and bend at the waist. Touch the mat with your hands or grasp the back of your legs. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Try over-the-counter laxatives or stool softeners. Several varieties of laxatives and stool softeners are available over the counter. You doctor will likely recommend one of these options if a necessary medication has caused your irregularity. However, you can also use these options as directed even when a medication is not the cause. OTC options include:
- Stimulants – These options (which include Dulcolax and Correctol) contract the intestines, causing them to move stool more quickly through your intestinal tract. Though available over the counter, you should reserve stimulants as a last resort for severe cases, and you should avoid stimulants containing phenolphthalein.
- Lubricants – Lubricants (such as Fleet and Zymenol) coat stool, helping it to retain fluid and move more easily down the lower digestive tract.
- Stool softeners – These products (including Colace and Docusate) mix fluid with your stool to soften them and ease passage. Doctors especially recommend these options for those who strain during bowel movements or for women who suffer from constipation after childbirth.
- Osmotic agents – These options (such as Milk of Magnesia and Miralax) help stool retain fluid usually absorbed by the digestive tract, easing the passage of bowel movements.
- Irregularity is often a symptom of an underlying disease or condition. If basic lifestyle changes haven’t helped you regulate bowel movements, then see your doctor to rule out other causes.
- Overusing laxatives, especially stimulant laxatives, can cause your body to become dependent on them. Do not use laxatives every day. If you have chronic constipation, consult your physician for alternative treatments.
- “Natural” does not necessarily mean “safe.” Consult with a doctor or pharmacist before taking a natural remedy, especially if you have other health conditions. Herbs and food can interact with a number of different medications and medical conditions.
- When you wake up in the morning, drink from 2 to 4 glasses of water, it works wonders. This helps your body to eliminate toxins.
- Prunes and other dried fruits also aid in digestion.
- Try having lemon water. The acid in the lemon will soften the stool and will ease the movement in your bowls.
- Taking warm water and honey should help.