Most people average a bowel movement somewhere between once a day and three times a week, and constipation is defined as a decrease in your usual number of bowel movements. If you normally go once a day, and you suddenly only go once a week, then you’re probably constipated.
What Causes Constipation?
When it comes to constripation, doctors blame not eating enough fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and other sources of fiber…while eating too many processed foods. Fiber helps moves the bowels, but most Americans eat far less than the recommended 20 to 35 g of fiber a day.
Also, women tend to have additional bowel challenges: They often get constipated in the week or so before menstruation, because fluids that normally flow to the colon, softening and moving stools, are retained in other parts of the body. Also, hormonal changes during pregnancy and the pressure on the abdomen caused by childbirth often lead to constipation.
If you are experiencing constipation, doctors say that relief can be as simple as eating more fiber-rich foods on a regular basis and being more active.
Don’t skip meals. Dieting women often get constipated because they eat only one large meal a day, says Joanne A.P. Wilson, MD, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC. “Eating stimulates the reflex that causes stuff to move forward in the gut.” When nothing moves, you can’t pass stool. Breakfast is particularly important, because that’s what starts your digestive juices flowing every day.
Eat fruit. Fiber creates soft, mobile stools, says Elaine Feldman, MD, professor emeritus of medicine at the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine in Augusta. “You don’t have to eat a pound of bran a day; just treat yourself to three servings of vegetables and two fruits a day and some whole wheat bread.”
Introduce fiber slowly. “Too much fiber too fast may solve your constipation, but it can replace it with gassiness, bloating, and diarrhea,” Dr. Feldman says. (Check out our guide to belly-friendly foods.)
Try a supplement. Some women complain that they can’t digest that much fiber. If that describes you, or if you’re working fiber into your diet, try a fiber supplement such as Metamucil, Citrucel, or Fibercon, says Linda Lee, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Drink more water. Drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily to soften the stool, says Robyn Karlstadt, MD, a gastroenterologist at Graduate Hospital in Philadelphia. Fill an empty 64-oz soda bottle with water and keep it at your desk, then help yourself until it’s gone.