© Alexander Raths | Dreamstime.com
Everyone experiences constipation at some time. Most often it is nothing to worry about, but if the condition starts to happen more frequently and with greater severity, you may wonder, “What helps constipation”? At that point, you may need to seek treatment.
How does constipation occur? As undigested food passes through the colon, water is absorbed to form the solid waste (stool). If not enough water is removed, diarrhea symptoms will result. If too much water is removed, the stool becomes hard, dry, and difficult to pass out of the body—constipation.
Many people believe they are constipated if they don’t have a bowel movement every day. In fact, the frequency of bowel movements considered normal ranges from three times a day to three times a week.
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Constipation means passing small amounts of hard, dry stool, usually less than three times a week, and straining to have a bowel movement. Other symptoms are bloating, general discomfort, and sluggishness. Like diarrhea, constipation is very common and usually lasts only short time. Even so, constipation accounts for about 2 million doctor visits each year in the United States.
A low-fiber diet, not drinking enough fluids, and lack of exercise are common causes of constipation. Many medications can cause constipation, including pain medications (opioids), antacids that contain aluminum and calcium, calcium channel blockers (for lowering blood pressure), anti-Parkinson’s drugs, antispasmodics, antidepressants, iron supplements, diuretics, and anticonvulsants.
What Helps Constipation: Treatment Options
So what helps constipation? In most cases, it’s treated with lifestyle modifications, including increasing activity, daily fluid intake, and the amount of fiber (from beans, fruits, vegetables, or grains) in the diet. Laxatives are usually not necessary for mild cases of constipation. However, if lifestyle changes don’t help, the doctor may recommend laxative or enema use for a short time.
Most treatments for occasional constipation fall into one of four groups:
- Bulk or fiber laxatives (Metamucil, Citrucel, Fibercon, and Benefiber) serve to hold water in the intestines and soften stool. Patients using these must drink at least eight glasses of fluid (water, juice, milk, coffee or tea) per day to avoid side effects.
- Osmotic laxatives (Milk of Magnesia and MiraLax,) cause the intestines to secrete water into the colon to soften stool. These also require adequate fluid intake.
- Stool softeners (Colace and Surfak) provide moisture to the stool
- Stimulants (Correctol, Dulcolax, and Senokot) cause intestinal muscle contractions to help move the stool more quickly. Long-term use is not recommended.
Originally published in May 2016 and updated.