Constipation Remedies to Try When You Can't Poop

These simple diet tips and lifestyle tweaks can bring much-needed constipation relief.

Anyone can have difficulty pooping from time to time. But, for some people, the inability of passing stool can be a chronic issue. Constipation becomes chronic when it slowly gets worse over months, or in some cases, years. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), constipation can include:

  • Having fewer than three bowel movements a week
  • Stools that are hard, dry, or lumpy
  • Stools that are difficult or painful to pass
  • A feeling that not all stool has passed

Constipation can mean different things to different people, said Michael Komar, MD, research collaborator at Geisinger in Danville, Pennsylvania, and you don't need every symptom to be backed up.

Just having one of these symptoms can be enough to be considered constipated.

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What Causes Constipation?

What causes constipation varies from person to person. But knowing why you can't empty your bowels may help you find a constipation treatment that works. Of note: If you have an infant or child with constipation, consult your pediatrician for appropriate treatment.

Some people have a form of pelvic floor dysfunction, known as dyssynergic defecation, meaning the "muscles that should be relaxing [when pooping] are, instead, contracting," explained Dr. Komar.

For these folks, biofeedback therapy, a type of neuromuscular training aimed at correcting the biomechanics of going No. 2, can be an effective constipation treatment, according to a 2021 study published in the journal Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology.

People with constipation have slow-transit constipation, meaning the stool passes too slowly through the gut. If you're consuming a diet low in fiber or leading a sedentary lifestyle, you might have difficult or infrequent BMs.

Or, maybe you get constipated when you travel because your usual bathroom routine is disrupted. Ignoring the need to poop and "holding it" can also cause constipation over time.

According to the NIDDK, constipation can be a side effect of taking certain medications, too, such as iron, opioids, antidepressants, and calcium channel blockers.

It can also be a symptom of diabetes, hypothyroidism, or neurological conditions, like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's disease. Less commonly, a bowel blockage can prevent stool from passing normally.

If you're over 50 and haven't had a colon cancer screening, or if you have rectal bleeding, anemia, unexplained weight loss, or severe pain, see your healthcare provider for your constipation to rule out colon or rectal cancer or some other bowel blockage.

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What Helps Relieve Constipation?

What helps constipation depends on its cause, severity, and duration.

In some cases, an over-the-counter product like Miralax, an osmotic laxative that draws water into the colon, or Colace, a stool softener that boosts the water content of your poop can help. For many, simply tweaking diet and other lifestyle factors can bring relief. Here are a few suggestions.

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Drink More Water

Water is essential for many processes in our bodies, including digestion. According to a 2018 study in the journal Nutrients, there is no universal recommendation for water intake because there are so many variables involved in determining when an individual is well-hydrated—from activity level to age to sex.

Study authors do state, though, that as a general rule, the National Academy of Medicine recommends 2700 ml total water intake a day for females and 3700 ml a day for males.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, that's about 11.5 cups for women and 15.5 cups for men. That amount, however, includes fluids you consume found in food and beverages, as well as water.

For that reason, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends nine cups of fluid intake a day for women and 13 for men in addition to the water you get from food, like fruits and soups.

One way to know if you're hydrating enough is by the color of your pee. If it's light yellow or straw-colored, you're probably hydrating enough. If your urine is consistently light-colored and you're still constipated, you might need to tweak some other things in your lifestyle.

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Eat More Fiber

Adequate fiber intake is helpful for digestion and also reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, certain gastrointestinal disorders (like constipation), type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers, according to a 2018 study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.

Yet with all these benefits, only about 5% of the population gets enough fiber.

According to the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), anyone over two years old should aim to eat 14 grams of fiber for every 1000 calories consumed.

For women, that's about 25-28 grams of dietary fiber a day, and for men about 28-34 grams a day.

As far as digestion goes, fiber helps bulk stool up and keeps it moving through the digestive tract. The DGA provides a comprehensive list of various foods and their fiber content, so you can see where you're currently at with your fiber intake and determine if you need more of it.

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Exercise

In a 2019 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Gastroenterology, researchers reviewed nine randomized controlled trials and found that exercise had significant benefits in improving the symptoms of constipation.

Researchers did say, however, that the studies they reviewed were not well-structured and that more research with better-designed studies needs to be done on this topic.

Some medical professionals are believers in exercise for constipation. "Movement will affect digestion because it will help move food contents, gas, and stool along the digestive tract," gastroenterologist Sophie Balzora, MD, assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health previously told Health.

This is why many doctors recommend exercise to people who are chronically constipated, added Dr. Balzora.

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Try a Low-FODMAP Diet

The acronym FODMAP, short for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols, refers to sugars in your diet that can cause gut symptoms in some people. Going on a low-FODMAP diet means eliminating and then slowly reintroducing potentially troublesome foods, like beans, milk, and certain fruits.

The process helps you figure out which ones are causing your GI issues. You can do the diet at home, and it's usually supervised by a healthcare provider or registered dietitian. Studies suggest it can be useful in treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Dr. Burkhart said she'll try it on patients "only after more conservative approaches have failed" because it's not easy to follow. That being said, "the diet is incredibly helpful in many cases," added Dr. Burkhart.

A 2021 review of the literature published in Frontiers Nutrition determined that studies do show that a low FODMAP diet helps improve symptoms in people with IBS.

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Consider Probiotics

Probiotic supplements and foods like yogurt, kefir, and kimchi contain good-for-your-gut bacteria that may help ease constipation.

"Studies have shown that probiotics can help soften stools and increase the number of bowel movements," noted Dr. Burkhart.

For example, a 2022 study published in the journal Annals of Translational Medicine suggested that probiotics can significantly improve constipation. In this study, they identified the good bacteria Lactobacillus plantarum (L. plantarum) as being especially helpful for easing constipation.

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Eat Prunes or Drink Prune Juice

It's true what they say about prunes and prune juice: They do make you go.

A 2019 study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that eating prunes can help improve the frequency of bowel movements in people who don't have enough fiber in their diet.

Prunes may get their laxative effect from a dose of fiber (3 grams in a serving of four to five dried plums) and sorbitol, a type of sugar alcohol.

The drawback, though, is that if fiber or sugar alcohols irritate your gut, prunes could wreak more havoc (they're a no-go on the low FODMAP diet).

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Take Psyllium

Psyllium, a soluble fiber that comes from the husks (or seed coat) of some flowering plants, has several advantages over other types of fiber that you might consume, say, in a bowl of cereal.

A 2021 study in the journal Nutrition Today states that psyllium fiber is not only beneficial for relieving constipation, but it also lowers cholesterol, improves blood sugar control, helps people feel fuller longer, and helps lower blood pressure.

Psyllium is found in over-the-counter products such as Metamucil. Other bulking agents include methylcellulose, another type of plant fiber and the main ingredient in Citrucel.

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Manage Stress

Stress is a risk factor for developing IBS, which can cause constipation, and is associated with symptom flare-ups, according to the NIDDK. They also recommend reducing stress to help manage IBS. Simple ways to reduce stress include finding time to yourself—like when you soak in a warm tub—practicing meditation, and doing yoga or Tai Chi.

A 2021 review article published in the Journal of Advanced Research in Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy suggest that certain types of yoga can help improve constipation by decreasing stress.

Study authors also state that poses that include twisting and placing pressure on the abdomen can also help relieve constipation symptoms.

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Use Laxatives Sparingly

Stimulant laxatives, taken by mouth or as a suppository, work by increasing water content in the gut and increasing intestinal activity. They include senna, an herbal laxative found in products to relieve constipation, including teas and supplements.

These products make quick work of resolving occasional bouts of constipation by speeding up your BMs. But these products should not be your first line of treatment. Only use these medicines for severe constipation or if other treatments haven't worked, cautions the NIDDK.

If you're pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider before using any laxatives, especially stimulant laxatives.

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Bowel Training

Another treatment the NIDDK suggests is training your bowel. Sounds weird, but the nervous system is trainable, so it's worth a shot.

Some suggestions include trying to poop at the same time every day; after breakfast is a good time, as eating stimulates the bowel. Placing your feet on a stool can help place your body in a better pooping position. It also helps relax your pelvic floor muscles.

In fact, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology shows that using a stool helps to shorten the time in the bathroom, decreases straining, and helps to more completely clean out the bowels.

Not rushing the process and giving yourself enough time to finish the job helps, too. While you're sitting there, visualize the process happening, and use deep breathing, which will help you relax and get the job done.

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