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How to prevent and manage constipation

A toilet roll with a happy face and one with a sad face
Experiencing constipation? Here’s what you should know.

If you are straining to pass a poo, or you’re going less often than usual, you could have constipation.

Constipation is a very common health complaint, affecting 1 in 5 people in Australia. It’s often a temporary issue, but for some people, constipation can be an ongoing problem. It can be painful, uncomfortable, and can lead to other health concerns.

We’ve explored the common causes and symptoms of constipation, what you can do to prevent and manage it, and when to seek help.

Symptoms of constipation

Commons symptoms of constipation include:

  • Passing small, hard poos
  • Straining and pain while passing a poo
  • Going to the toilet less frequently – usually fewer than three times per week
  • Cramping and stomach pains
  • Bloating and flatulence
  • Nausea
  • Having to sit on the toilet for much longer than usual
  • The sensation after going to the toilet that the bowel hasn’t fully emptied.

Causes of constipation

If it’s been a little while between poos, you might be wondering what’s going on in your gut. There can be a range of different causes.

Low fibre diet – not eating enough fibre-rich foods can slow down digestion and make poo more compact and difficult to pass. This is one of the most common causes of constipation.

Dehydration – not drinking enough fluids can dehydrate our body and our poo, too. This leads to harder, drier poo, which can be painful and difficult to pass.

Inactivity – when our body doesn’t move a lot, our bowels can become sluggish too. This can lead to poo spending a longer time in our gut, where it becomes drier and more compact.

Medications – constipation can be a side effect of different medications, such as strong pain relief medications, anti-nausea drugs, anti-depressants, supplements and chemotherapy drugs.

Ignoring the call of nature – not pooing when we feel like we need to means that poo spends a longer time in the gut, where it becomes more compact and more difficult to pass.

In addition, pregnancy, menopause, older age, medical conditions, and changes to our work and travel routine can affect our bowel movements. Constipation in children is also quite common, especially around the time of toilet training. Cows milk allergy can cause severe constipation in a minority of infants and young children.

Preventing and managing constipation – the three F’s

While constipation is sometimes a fact of life, there are things we can do to keep regular. The three F’s – fluid, fibre, and fitness – are a great place to start.

Fluid

Water is the healthiest drink for our body and our gut. Drinking plenty of water every day can help prevent and manage constipation by softening poo and helping food to move through the gut smoothly.

As a general guide, adults should aim to drink around 2 litres of water every day.

Close up of filling a glass from a water tap

Fibre

Fibre is the part of our food that we can’t fully digest. It plays an important role in moving food through our digestive system at the right pace. Fibre adds bulk to our poo, which helps us go more regularly. It also absorbs water, making poo softer and easier to pass.

Eat fibre-rich foods regularly to help prevent and manage constipation. This includes vegetables, fruit, wholegrain breads and cereals, nuts and seeds. Eating the recommended number of serves of the five food groups is a great way to make sure you’re getting enough fibre in your diet.

If you’re not eating a lot of fibre now, increase your intake slowly. Suddenly eating lots of fibre can make constipation worse. Make sure you also increase your fluid intake to help the extra fibre to move through your digestive system.

Fibre supplements can be helpful for some people, but they can also cause or aggravate constipation. It’s best to check with your GP or health professional about whether fibre supplements are right for you.

Close up of a bowl of porridge topped with berries and nuts

Fitness

Moving our body helps move our digestive system too. Aim for around 30 minutes of physical activity most (preferably all) days of the week. If you have a mobility or health condition, speak with your GP or health professional about ways to increase your physical activity.

Group of women walking alongside Brisbane River

Other ways to help prevent and manage constipation include:

  • Pay attention to your poo – know what’s normal for you, so you’re aware when things change.
  • Check that you’re pooing properly – yes, there are techniques you can use to support your body while pooing.
  • Find the right time to poo – the digestive system works to a regular rhythm and is typically most active after waking up in the morning or following meals. Work with your body’s natural rhythm by going to the bathroom when you feel the urge, and if possible, stick to a routine. Routine can also help children who are being toilet trained.

Prune juice and pear juice have a natural laxative effect and are an option to get the bowels moving. Over-the-counter laxatives can also help relieve constipation when used appropriately. Different laxatives work in different ways – some stimulate your bowel to contract and move, while others act to soften the poo so it is easier to pass. Speak with your doctor, pharmacist or health professional to understand whether the short-term use of laxatives might work for you.

When to see your doctor for constipation

If you’re experiencing constipation and you’ve tried to address it through the tips above, it’s best to talk with your GP or health professional. They will work with you to find out the underlying cause and suggest the most appropriate solution.

Chronic constipation can lead to more serious health concerns including bowel obstruction or blockage, which is the build up of poo in your intestines that requires medical intervention. Other complications can include haemorrhoids, faecal and urinary incontinence, and prolapse. Seeking medical help early is the best way to manage constipation and avoid complications.

You can also talk to your doctor about whether it’s appropriate for you to participate in the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program. Read our blog to learn more about the program.

More information

Digestion 101

Is your poo normal?

Are you pooing properly?

Constipation – Gastroenterological Society of Australia

Constipation in children

Last updated: 12 November 2019