Constipation is one of those all-too-common health annoyances that virtually everyone suffers through from time to time – and if you were stuck in quarantine as most of us were, it may be happening even more often now. Granted the occasional bout is disruptive and can make you feel, dare we say it, crappy, frequent bouts can be a warning – or at least a nudge from your gut telling you to start paying it more attention, now more than ever.
To help you get your bathroom habits back on an even keel – quarantine or no quarantine – here are few of my tried-and-true, strain and drug-free strategies to get things moving again – and flush your troubles away:
No shame in the pooping game.
Most of us grew up being told that one’s pooping habits were not to be discussed in polite company. Not an entirely bad idea, but consequently, many folks wound up being somewhat in the dark about what’s considered normal and what’s not, and what might warrant further investigation. For some, eliminating three times a day is normal, while for others once a day, or possibly, even every other day suits them just fine. But if you hit day number three without any elimination action, chances are, you’re constipated. And if those long, poop-free stretches are your norm, you may be putting your health in harm’s way.
Regularity helps keep gut defenses strong – particularly during the pandemic.
Everyone knows from personal experience that constipation is uncomfortable, but slowed, infrequent or irregular elimination habits can actually make you sick by weakening your immune system – just about the last thing you want happening in the middle of a pandemic. Constipation disrupts the physical health and bacterial balance of your microbiome – the microbial world that lives in your gut, where roughly 70% of your immune system is housed. That disruption, interestingly enough, can also negatively impact your mental health by interfering with the delivery of essential nutrients to the parts of the brain that regulate mood. On the physical side, if constipation is chronic, small tears and hemorrhoids can crop up and make elimination painful. What’s more, it can also put you at increased risk for increased colorectal cancer, so truly, constipation is no laughing matter. Safe to say, the better you are at moving waste products out of your system at a daily pace, the less time the stuff will linger (and stir up trouble) in your gut, and the better it’ll be for your short- and long-term health.
Meet the quarantine constipation culprits.
Few, if any, of us have experience with life in quarantine, so safe to say, we’re all finding our way, and doing the best we can. Though many of the same things that can cause constipation under non-pandemic circumstances – dehydration, poor diet, not enough movement – will have the same effect during the current crisis. However, the difference now is that we’re dealing so many more emotional stressors than usual, which can slow elimination to a crawl. The profound disruption of our normal home and work routines; the lack of exercise; increased reliance on comfort foods; the relentlessness and duration of the crisis, not to mention sadness, isolation and loneliness – any wonder why you may be having a tough time relaxing and eliminating comfortably?
Go with the flow.
Imagine a water slide at a water park, that strong flow of water running down the shoot that enables you to make a smooth and speedy descent. Well, the same principle applies to hydration and regularity. Taking in lots of water helps keep stools soft and easy to pass. Drinking water when you’re thirsty is a good guide, at a minimum, but some people just aren’t tuned-in to their thirst and they consistently drink less than is good for them, which significantly slows elimination down. Drinking four to six glasses a day of filtered water a day is a reasonable baseline, but if you live in a hot climate or exercise vigorously, you may very likely need more. One good guide is the color of your urine. You’re shooting for a light straw color, and most definitely not bright yellow.
Keep your body moving….and everything keeps moving.
Exercise – keeping your body in motion – is just what your gut needs to keep you regular. It actually has a double benefit. First, the physical activity – be it a moderately-paced walk or a high-intensity set of intervals – stimulates the rhythmic contraction and relaxation of the digestive pipes that pushes waste products through the system. (Peristalsis is the technical name.)
And then there’s the mental pay-off. Emotional stress can cause the waste disposal system to grind to a halt (or, it can go into overdrive, aka, diarrhea) and exercise is nature’s great stressbuster. More mindful movements, especially some of the twisting poses in yoga, are a more targeted way to prod the gut into self-cleaning mode. And a pure “mind” approach, meditation, is a time-honored way to tame gut-clenching stress.
If you want to poop, don’t eat crap.
If constipation is an issue, one of the first places I look for answers is the plate. The foods that are bad for your overall health are also likely to be clogging your pipes. (Big surprise!) I’m talking about foods low in fiber, heavy on the sugar and flour: baked goods, pasta, rice and the like, especially sludgy and sugary processed foods. Over-doing it on meat and cheese can also gum up the works for some folks. But a good constipation detective should also be on the look-out for foods that trigger common food sensitivities or intolerances, especially dairy and gluten-containing grains. (For a deeper dive into other common dietary triggers, click here.) And, of course, load up on the good stuff, especially “non-starchy” veggies (leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) and some legumes. Not only are these foods high in fiber, which should keep things moving, they also feed the good bacteria in your gut, which aids regularity. Fermented foods are another gift to the gut and its inhabitants.
Clean out your medicine cabinet.
Take a hard look at those medicine cabinet shelves. There’s a good chance you don’t need to take all those pills and potions – some of them are wrenches thrown into the digestive works. Antidepressant and prescription pain meds are common culprits, so work with your doctor on the possibility of limiting or eliminating them. Over-the-counter meds antacids or supplements with a lot of iron can stop you up too. So, if you’re hitting any of them on the regular, they too may be contributing to the problem. My advice. Work on tapering off to get things moving again.
Eliminations aids, the natural way.
The drugstore laxatives will certainly get the job done but they’re a one-time fix that, all too often, sets you up for an IBS-like not-so-merry-go-round of diarrhea followed by more constipation. Instead, take a more natural approach. You can’t get more natural than a DIY abdominal massage to wake up the colon, so try this one for starters.
As for handier remedies, I recommend a good probiotic to help fix the gut in the longer term. For quicker relief, I like magnesium citrate supplements (it relaxes everything, including the gut) as well as the ayurvedic herbal, Triphala. A high-quality fiber supplement (usually in powder form), that combines soluble and insoluble fiber, is another good way to go. Start with less than the recommended dose and slowly increase, as your system gets used to the added bulk. And, when going the fiber supplement route, don’t scrimp on drinking plenty of water – it’s the proverbial secret sauce that makes the movement.
Strike a pose.
For most of the time humans have lived on the planet, and still in many parts of the world today, squatting was the normal position to take a poop. Now we sit on the bathroom toilet which, hygienic as that may be, kinks up the alignment of colon and rectum and makes strain-less elimination that much more difficult. There’s a simple solution: place your feet on a Squatty Potty to elevate your knees or get the same effect with a one-step step stool. In a pinch, even an overturned bucket or a small stack of books can help give your system the low-tech assist it needs.
Regularity is a state of mind.
Digestion, which formally concludes with that at times problematic last phase of elimination, works best on a schedule. Find a schedule that fits your lifestyle and your gut and get used to letting your insides relax at the appointed hour. Try this step-by-step program to ‘retrain’ your bowels and help get the results you’re after. Add to that a few poop-propelling yoga poses and you’ll be well on the way to much more regular, strain-free bathroom habits.
Keep up the good work.
To keep constipation at bay 24/7, what you eat during the day matters. Lay off the pipe cloggers and make few simple adjustments to stack the deck in favor of better elimination:
- Improve digestion by adding 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar and/or bitters to a glass of water, before and after meals
- Chew fennel seeds or infuse them into your afternoon cup of tea
- Sprinkle flaxseeds and chia seeds into your morning eggs and smoothies, or into lunch and dinner salads to add more fiber to your plate
- Add more healthy fats to your diet, like olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.
And finally, if the tips above are not working, it could be time to see a Functional Medicine practitioner, who can assess if you have SIBO or a dysbiosis caused by an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria, yeast or parasites, which will need to be treated with antimicrobial herbs and/or medications.