Nothing feels crappier than constipation. But if you haven't pooped in days, your digestive system definitely deserves some attention — and addressing the common causes of constipation can help.
There's no golden rule when it comes to ideal bowel movement frequency, but if you haven't pooped in a few days or longer, you may need to make some tweaks to your diet, exercise or lifestyle.
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In an ideal world, we'd all be using the bathroom first thing in the morning, according to Tarek Hassanein, MD, FACG, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.
Realistically, not everyone has the luxury of a daily, scheduled poop. However, if you're accustomed to a consistent frequency and haven't pooped in five to seven days, you may need to take a trip to the doctor.
But before you begin to worry (or resort to over-the-counter laxatives), consider these common causes of constipation and their remedies.
Lack of Fiber
If you haven't pooped in a few days and also aren't eating any vegetables, your body may be deficient in fiber. That's right — you can experience constipation from not eating enough of the nutrient.
Most Americans don't get close to enough fiber in their daily diet, and that can slow down your motility, Dr. Hassanein says. That's why eating more fiber is one of the best natural remedies for constipation.
Per the Mayo Clinic, here's how many grams of fiber you should eat a day to avoid constipation (and to support your overall digestive health):
- People assigned female at birth (AFAB): 21 to 25 g
- People assigned male at birth (AMAB): 30 to 38 g
Filling your meals and snacks with high-fiber foods like fruits, veggies and whole grains can help you increase your daily intake. But fiber alone won't do the trick, Dr. Hassanein says. You'll probably also need to increase your fluids in order to get your digestion moving again.
However, talk to your doctor before trying any supplement, as the FDA doesn't require these products to be proven safe or effective before they're sold
Can Fiber Cause Constipation?
If you rapidly increase your fiber intake, fiber can make you constipated (and cause other digestive issues like bloating and gas) while your body adjusts, per the Mayo Clinic.
That's why foods like Fiber One bars can cause constipation if you're not used to high amounts of fiber, for example. That said, Fiber One bars do have the potential to help with constipation (along with other fiber bars for constipation) if you regularly get your fill of the nutrient.
Because fiber causes constipation at first for some people, the best way to avoid side effects is to ease into eating fibrous foods, per the Mayo Clinic. Gradually up your intake over the course of a few weeks to give your body time to adjust.
On the flip side, eating too many low-fiber, salty, processed foods (think fried or fast foods) can stop you up.
While salt doesn't cause constipation directly — in fact, up to 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day is considered a part of a balanced diet, per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans — it can contribute to bathroom blockages.
Too much sodium can cause constipation because it decreases the amount of water in your stool, which can make it harder to pass, according to January 2022 research in Nutrients.
Because salt and constipation can go hand in hand, it's important to limit or avoid sources of excess sodium. Salty meats like sausage can cause constipation, for instance. Bacon is likewise bad for constipation. Other high-sodium foods to avoid include:
- Other processed meats like salami and jerky
- Table salt
- Frozen pizza
- Canned beans, soup and vegetables
- Condiments like soy sauce, teriyaki sauce and salad dressing
- Packaged snacks like pretzels, chips and cereal bars
Gluten can cause constipation for some people: For instance, gluten can make you constipated if you have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that triggers damage to your small intestine, according to the Mayo Clinic.
While gluten does cause constipation for some, other possible symptoms can include:
- Weight loss
- Abdominal pain
And celiac disease isn't the only reason gluten can make you constipated. A gluten intolerance can also cause constipation and related symptoms like diarrhea, bloating and abdominal pain, per the Cleveland Clinic.
- Wheat (including wheat flour in bread, pasta and baked goods)
- Triticale (a cross between wheat and rye)
- Oats, in some cases
- Wheat-based meat substitutes like seitan
Wheat flour can have different names based on how it is processed, per the Mayo Clinic. Other types of flour to look out for include enriched, farina, semolina, graham and self-rising flour.
If you're not sensitive to gluten but notice that certain carbs do make you constipated, refined grains may be to blame.
Carb lovers, we know what you're wondering: Does bread or pasta make you constipated?
While whole-wheat bread or pasta can be good for constipation due to the high fiber content, processed products — like white bread — can make you constipated. That's because most (if not all) of the fibrous grain bran and germ are removed during refinement process, per the American Heart Association, and this lack of fiber can up your risk for constipation.
As a result, eating too much processed pasta, for instance, may lead to constipation.
Lack of Fluids
Dehydration may be to blame if you haven't pooped in two, three, four or more days because not drinking enough fluids can block you up, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
- Body weight (in pounds) ÷ 2 = minimum ounces of water you should drink per day.
Lack of Exercise
Another reason you may be constipated for days is that you're not moving your body enough.
"Sedentary lifestyle has been associated with constipation, and management strategies that include increased exercise have demonstrated an improvement in constipation symptoms," says Nikhil A. Kumta, MD, gastroenterologist and associate professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
Indeed, physical activity can increase blood flow and can promote regular, healthy bowel movements, Dr. Hassanein says.
Generally, you should aim to get a minimum if 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio activity each week, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Daily cardio activity, such as walking or hiking, will not only encourage a daily poop, but can also help you manage your weight.
However, more intense or exhaustive exercise, like long-distance endurance training, can be more taxing on your digestive system, Renwick says. Long endurance training can reduce your body's gas production and nutrient absorption and, in some cases, may lead to abdominal pain or loose stool.
The CDC also recommends regular strength training activities — like bodyweight exercises or weight lifting — to support muscle health and overall wellbeing.
During moments of high stress, your adrenal glands produce more epinephrine, a hormone involved in the fight-or-flight response. This causes your body to redirect blood flow from your GI tract to other vital organs like the heart, lungs and brain, resulting in slower intestinal movement and constipation, according to The American Institute of Stress (AIS).
Not only can stress cause constipation, but it may also alter the good bacteria in your gut. This could hypothetically slow digestion, although more research is needed to confirm this theory, per the AIS.
All this is to say, to get your bowels moving, you may first need to focus on stress management.
"Mental health should be prioritized in high-stress individuals, and health care providers can assist with treatment, coping mechanisms and behavioral modifications to assist with relaxation," Dr. Kumta says.
Practicing abdominal breathing is one way to improve your "brain-gut connection," according to the International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders (IFFGD).
To practice this technique, bring awareness to your breath, inhale deeply and exhale slowly for five counts. Continuing this process for 5 to 10 breaths can help promote relaxation.
Renwick also recommends progressive muscle relaxation as another way to potentially promote healthy digestion, according to the IFFGD. Slowly contract your muscles in your forehead for three to four seconds and then release the muscle, noticing the difference in sensation. Then, slowly move down the body using the same technique.
Vitamin Overdose or Insufficiency
If your level of constipation is steadily rising, certain vitamin imbalances may be to blame.
For instance, vitamin B12 deficiency may be the culprit. Alongside weakness, fatigue, loss of appetite and weight loss, a lack of vitamin B12 may cause constipation, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Adults should aim to get about 2.4 micrograms of vitamin B12 each day, per the NIH. Seafood like clams, trout, salmon and tuna are high in B12 and provide more than 100 percent of your daily recommended value per 3-ounce serving.
If you don't eat meat, though, consider a B12 supplement or adding fortified nutritional yeast to some of your meals.
In other cases, constipation may indicate an excess of certain vitamins.
For instance, taking too much vitamin D can be harmful. Taking more than 4,000 IU a day of vitamin D can cause constipation, as well as nausea, vomiting or poor appetite, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Ignoring the Urge to Go
Holding in your poop occasionally isn't a big deal, but routinely delaying your bathroom trips can backfire and back you up.
"Ignoring the urge to defecate can contribute to the development of constipation," Dr. Kumta says. And if you put off pooping frequently, there might be a larger underlying issue at play.
Some people might be avoiding the pain associated with the passage of a large, hard stool, due to an anal fissure or hemorrhoid. A history of sexual or physical abuse or an eating disorder may cause others to suppress the urge to defecate, Dr. Kumta says. In these cases, it's best to enlist the help of a medical professional.
"Developing a daily regimen is also helpful," Dr. Kumta says. For example, take a fiber supplement every night. In the morning, engage in mild physical activity, drink a hot, preferably caffeinated beverage and eat a high-fiber cereal within 45 minutes of waking.
"This routine augments early morning, high-amplitude peristaltic contractions (the wave-like muscle contractions of the digestive tract)," and will get things flowing in the bathroom, Dr. Kumta says.
When you're expecting, you can also expect your regular poop habits to grind to a halt. That's because "pregnancy leads to hormonal and mechanical changes that can contribute to constipation," Dr. Kumta says.
In fact, "constipation is second only to nausea as the most common digestive complaint in pregnancy, with up to 40 percent of [people AFAB] suffering symptoms of constipation at some stage in their pregnancy," he says.
Certain Medical Conditions
It's probably no surprise that underlying gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome can lead to constipation. But other non-GI health issues can slow down bowel movements, too.
"Endocrine, neurologic and multi-system disorders can be associated with constipation, including hypothyroidism, diabetes, scleroderma, Parkinson's disease and connective tissue disorders, among others," Dr. Kumta says.
Pelvic floor dysfunction, which can impair the relaxation and coordination of pelvic floor and abdominal muscles during evacuation, can also result in constipation, Dr. Kumta says. Fortunately, "biofeedback therapy can be implemented to retrain the pelvic floor muscles and relax the anal sphincter."
And just as emotional stress can strain your bowels, so too can psychological disorders like depression.
One-third of people struggling with depression also battle chronic constipation, according to Columbia University Irving Medical Center. The reason why may be chemical: A study conducted in mice discovered that low serotonin (which can lead to depression) can cause constipation, per a May 2019 paper in Gastroenterology.
However, more research is needed in humans to better establish this link.
If you also have symptoms like weight loss, bloody stools, iron deficiency anemia or worsened GI symptoms at night, or if you have a family history of colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, your constipation may be the sign of a more serious condition that requires medical care, Dr. Kumta says.
Some medications could cause poop problems, too. "Several medications are associated with constipation, including anticholinergic drugs, opioids, calcium-channel blockers, iron supplements and certain antidepressants," Dr. Kumta says.
Older adults, who often take these medications simultaneously, may have an increased risk of being bound up in the bowels, he says.
Dr. Kumta recommends reviewing your list of medications with your doctor to uncover any potential constipation-inducing side effects.
And why should constipation be prioritized during these conversations? Addressing constipation (and any other digestive side effects) can help you avoid mounting discomfort and the development of additional issues.
- Mayo Clinic: "High-Fiber Foods"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Physical Activity and Health"
- IFFGD: "Relaxation Techniques to Manage IBS Symptoms"
- Mayo Clinic: "Vitamin D"
- NIH: "Vitamin B12"
- Mayo Clinic: "Dietary fiber: Essential for a healthy diet"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Constipation"
- The American Institute of Stress: "How is stress linked with constipation?"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- Nutrients: "Association between Dietary Factors and Constipation in Adults Living in Luxembourg and Taking Part in the ORISCAV-LUX 2 Survey"
- Mayo Clinic: "Celiac disease"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Gluten Intolerance"
- Mayo Clinic: "Gluten-free diet"
- American Heart Association: "Whole Grains, Refined Grains, and Dietary Fiber"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “FDA 101: Dietary Supplements”
- Gastroenterology: "Effects of Serotonin and Slow-Release 5-Hydroxytryptophan on Gastrointestinal Motility in a Mouse Model of Depression"
- Columbia University Irving Medical Center: "A Moody Gut Often Accompanies Depression—New Study Helps Explain Why"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.