Constipation is no fun: The bloat, the discomfort, the unsatisfying trips to the bathroom. If it happens to you, you’re not alone. The National Institutes of Health reports that constipation is among the most common gastrointestinal complaints in the United States.
And it’s even more common among women. According to Susanne Shokoohi, M.D., a gastrointestinal specialist at Henry Ford Health, women are two to three times more likely to suffer from constipation than men. But the good news is that they’re also more likely to seek medical attention for it.
What Is Constipation?
According to Dr. Shokoohi, constipation is different for everyone. “Regular bowel movements can happen anywhere from three times per day to three times per week,” she says. “In addition to infrequent bowel movements, constipation is typically characterized by firm and uncomfortable bowel movements and straining."
We all develop a sort of pattern of when we have to “go.” As long as you’re having bowel movements at least three times each week and not suffering from symptoms of constipation like straining, bloating and discomfort, you’re probably regular.
Women And Constipation
There are plenty of theories about why women tend to be more constipated than men, but most experts believe it boils down to anatomy and physiology. Studies show women’s colons are 10 centimeters longer than men’s on average.
Shifting hormones, which are more common in women, may also play a role. Hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which fluctuate as part of menstruation, pregnancy and menopause, can plug you up.
Add it all together and it takes food longer to travel through a woman’s GI tract. Unfortunately, that also makes women more prone than men to other tummy troubles like bloating, irritable bowel syndrome and pelvic floor issues.
Constipation is uncomfortable, but consistent straining during bowel movements also increases your odds of developing unpleasant complications like hemorrhoids, anal fissures and pelvic floor dysfunction. The good news: There are things you can do to help get things moving again.
- Exercise. Moving your body can help get things moving internally. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you aim for 30 minutes (or more) of physical activity daily.
- Drink up. Your body needs fluid to push food through your GI tract. A good rule of thumb: Aim to drink about half your body weight in ounces every day. So if you weigh 140 pounds, sip at least 70 fluid ounces of water daily.
- Boost your fiber intake. Most people fall short of their daily fiber quota (35 milligrams for men; 25 milligrams for women). Everyone should load up on fiber-rich foods, such as apples, kiwis, berries, beans, broccoli and whole grains. Fiber supplements like Metamucil work, too. “But go easy,” cautions Dr. Shokoohi. “Start slow and gradually increase your fiber intake to reduce the risk of bloating, cramps and gas.”
- Mind your medications. All sorts of drugs—both prescription and over-the-counter—can have a constipating effect. The most common culprits include pain medications, antihistamines, antidepressants, antacids and iron supplements.
- Watch your diet. Meat, dairy and highly processed foods are constipating. So if you’re skimping on produce in favor of burgers, potato chips and milkshakes, you’re more likely to get plugged up.
- Get on a schedule. You can train your body to adopt a “pooping schedule.” “What you don’t want to do is ignore the urgency to go,” Dr. Shokoohi says. Instead, start sitting on the toilet at the same time each day to help coax your body into developing a pattern that works with your schedule.
- Consider meds. As long as you don’t have any red flags—rectal bleeding, family history of colon cancer, recent unexplained weight loss—over-the-counter medications like MiraLAX® can help treat constipation. Magnesium-based products can also help get things moving again. Want to have more control over when you go? Try suppositories, suggests Dr. Shokoohi.
When Should You Be Concerned About Infrequent Bowel Movements
Most cases of constipation can be easily treated with simple lifestyle changes and over-the-counter medications. The sooner you treat constipation, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
“But if you have red flags like a family history of colon cancer, recent unexplained weight loss, rectal bleeding or constipation is getting worse instead of better, it’s important to see your primary care provider,” Dr. Shokoohi says. Left unaddressed, chronic constipation can lead to a host of ailments beyond simple discomfort. These problems include hemorrhoids, rectal bleeding and anal fissures. It can even cause a condition called rectal prolapse, where the large intestine detaches and protrudes outside of the body.
Tried the remedies above but still straining with difficult bowel movements or going less than three times per week? Talk to your healthcare provider—and make sure you’re up to date with colon cancer screening.
Reviewed by Dr. Susanne Shokoohi, a gastroenterologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital and Henry Ford Medical Centers - Fairlane and Royal Oak.