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Do you feel gassy, bloated and constipated?
Feeling blocked up is uncomfortable. Here’s a look at some common causes and doctor-approved ways to get relief.
Finally, it’s pool and beach season again. That means it’s time to dig your swimsuit and tank tops out of the closet. But constipation and related issues can put a real damper on your plans.
You might have gas or feel bloated. Your stools (poop) may be painful, or they might not happen enough. That’s uncomfortable and unpleasant.1 And it might make you second-guess going swimming or doing other activities you enjoy.
As uncomfortable as it is, constipation is common. It can happen to anyone, kids or adults.2,3 About 1 in 20 times parents bring their kids to the doctor because of constipation, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.2 And about 16% of adults have symptoms, too, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. That jumps to 33% if you’re 60 or older.3
Are you worried that constipation might get in the way of your family’s summer fun? Here’s what to know about it, what causes it and how you can take care of it.
What is constipation, and how do you know if you have it?
When you’re constipated, you’re not moving your bowels (pooping) as often as you should. Plus, your stool might be dry and hard. Additional symptoms of constipation can include:4
- Fewer than three bowel movements a week
- Stool is difficult or painful to push out
- The feeling that not all your stool has come out
“You don’t have to have a bowel movement every day,” says Sarah Kent, MD. She’s a family medicine physician at USMD, part of Optum, in Cross Roads, Texas. “For some people, it’s normal to have a bowel movement up to every third day.”
Dr. Kent describes normal stool as matching the consistency of a banana. “As long as the bowel movements are soft, that might just be normal for them.”
Are bloating and gas different than constipation?
The simple answer is yes. You might have bloating and gas when you’re constipated. But they can also be signs of other health problems, says Dr. Kent. Common causes include:
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. This happens when what’s in your stomach leaks back into your esophagus (food pipe).5
- Irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. Experts don’t fully understand why, but IBS can cause stomach pain and bowel changes. It happens to women more often than men.6
- Lactose intolerance. This happens when your body can’t fully digest lactose. (That’s a type of sugar found in milk and other dairy products.)7
Still dealing with gas and/or bloating after your constipation goes away? It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor, says Dr. Kent.
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What causes constipation, and how can I feel better?
Let’s say you’re constipated and feeling bloated and gassy. Here are four reasons why it might happen.
Reason #1: You’re not eating enough food that’s high in fiber. One of the main causes of constipation is not eating enough foods that are rich in fiber, says Dr. Kent. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people get 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories. For women, the goal is 22 to 28 grams of fiber per day. Men should aim for is 28 to 34 grams.8
Here are some examples of how much fiber is in some common high-fiber foods:8
- One artichoke, cooked (9.6 grams)
- One cup of fresh raspberries (8 grams)
- One cup of broccoli, cooked (5.2 grams)
- One ounce of almonds (3.5 grams)
- Half a cup of cooked black beans (7.5 grams)
- One cup of cooked pearled barley (6 grams)
- 3 cups of popcorn (5.8 grams)
- One serving of beans, corn and tomato chili (6 grams)9
But it’s important to note that adding too much fiber to what you eat too quickly can lead to gas and bloating. So, try taking it slowly by adding a bit more fiber every few days. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids, too.10
You can also talk to your doctor about how to add fiber to the foods you eat. They can let you know about the proper amounts. They can also put you in touch with a dietitian or other food specialist to help you with meal planning.
Reason #2: You’re not drinking enough fluids. If you’re not drinking enough water, you can become dehydrated. And dehydration is a common cause of constipation.11
Most people should aim for about 8 to 10 cups of liquids, particularly water, every day, according to the National Library of Medicine.1 (Water from foods such as fruits and vegetables also counts towards this goal). And if it’s hot outside, you may need to drink even more water to stay hydrated.12
Reason #3: You’re not getting enough exercise. Exercise and constipation have more to do with each other than you might think. “Exercise can make a huge difference,” Dr. Kent says. And a lack of physical activity can cause constipation.13 If you’re looking for a fun, easy way to get active, you can try walking or running.
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Reason #4: You’re not going to the bathroom enough. You can get constipated if you ignore an urge to go to the bathroom.14 “Listen to your body,” Dr. Kent says. She also suggests not sitting on the toilet for long periods of time.
Another idea that could be helpful, according to Dr. Kent: a toilet stool. “You’re able to elevate your knees and have your feet flat at the same time, and be relaxed.”
You may find that using a stool to rest your feet on while using the toilet makes it easier to have a bowel movement.
Reason #5: You’re taking a medication that causes constipation. Some medicines can cause constipation. You may find that you are constipated more often if you’re taking certain:14
- Medication for Parkinson’s disease
- Seizure medication
- Iron supplements
- Narcotic pain medications
Reason #6: Another medical condition is to blame. Constipation can also be a symptom of another health problem. Some examples include colon cancer, thyroid disease and diabetes.4
What else can you do to get rid of constipation, bloating and gas?
If your diet and exercise doesn’t help, you can try an over-the-counter (OTC) medicine you don’t need a prescription to buy. These include:
- Stool softeners. True to their name, stool softeners make your stool softer and easier to pass.
- Bulk-forming laxatives. These help relieve and prevent constipation. When you use a bulk-forming laxative, your bowel movements become bulkier but softer. You’ll be able to go more easily. Be sure to take it with lots of water.
- Osmotic laxatives. These soften your stool by adding water into it. The added water in osmotic laxatives makes the stool easier to pass. Older adults and people with heart or kidney disease should talk to their doctor before taking an osmotic laxative.15
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When should I get in touch with my doctor about constipation?
Sometimes home remedies or OTC medicines aren’t enough. Some reasons to talk to your doctor include:15
- You’ve been constipated for longer than three weeks
- You have stomach pain when you pass stool
- You notice blood in your stool.
- Your stools are black or thinner.
And if any of your symptoms are severe, don’t wait. Seek immediate medical attention.
If you’re constipated often, that’s another reason to see your doctor, says Dr. Kent. Your doctor can help you put together a plan that works for you. That way you can get back to doing the things you love in the summertime.
- National Library of Medicine. Constipation — self-care. Last reviewed July 25, 2022. Accessed April 24, 2023.
- American Academy of Pediatrics. Constipation in children. Last updated September 27, 2022. Article accessed May 1, 2023.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Definition and facts for constipation. Last reviewed May 2018. Article accessed April 26, 2023.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Constipation. Accessed April 24, 2023.
- National Library of Medicine. Gastroesophageal reflux disease. Review date February 6, 2022. Article accessed April 28, 2023.
- National Library of Medicine. Irritable bowel syndrome. Review date April 19, 2021. Article accessed April 28, 2023.
- National Library of Medicine. Lactose intolerance. Review date May 4, 2022. Article accessed April 28, 2023.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. Published December 2020. Accessed May 30, 2023.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. 3-can chili. Article accessed May 2, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fiber: the carb that helps you manage diabetes. Last reviewed June 20, 2022. Article accessed May 2, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Water and healthier drinks. Last updated June 6, 2022. Article accessed May 2, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips for preventing heat-related illness. Last reviewed: August 16, 2022. Article accessed May 2, 2023.
- National Institute on Aging. Concerned about constipation? Content reviewed October 22, 2022. Article accessed May 2, 2023.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms and causes of constipation. Reviewed May 2018. Article accessed May 2, 2023.
- American Gastroenterological Association. Constipation. Accessed May 31, 2023.
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