Many of us have felt "plugged up" at certain (uncomfortable) points in our lives. Indeed, constipation is common, affecting about 15 percent of the world population, according to a January 2020 paper in Gastroenterology.
Constipation can be tricky because it's very individualized. Being constipated means different things to different people, and what causes constipation or what can help treat it can vary from person to person.
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There are also a lot of myths or misconceptions about constipation that can cause confusion. Here are five popular beliefs about constipation that are not entirely true.
Myth 1: Your Diet Is Always to Blame
Yes, your diet may be the cause of your constipation. Perhaps you tend to fall short on eating enough fiber-filled foods — this is the case for 95 percent of Americans, according to a January 2017 analysis in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
The thing is, your diet isn't always to blame. There are so many more factors that come into play when it comes to having normal BMs.
Constipation can occur if you're taking certain medications for pain, depression or high blood pressure, per the Mayo Clinic. Certain mental health conditions like depression or having an eating disorder also put you at greater risk. Pregnancy and diabetes can lead to having trouble with regular bowel movements as well. And sometimes you get constipated because you're stressed or you're traveling.
The point is, there are many possible reasons why you may be backed up. Your diet may be the issue, but it's not always the root cause.
Myth 2: You Need More Fiber
We know a low-fiber diet may lead to constipation in some, but packing in the fiber when you're constipated isn't always the answer.
There are two main types of fiber — soluble and insoluble — and it's the former that has the greatest body of evidence to support that it helps relieve constipation, according to a review from the American Gastroenterological Association published January 2013 in Gastroenterology.
You can find soluble fiber in:
- Oat bran and oatmeal
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes
- Some fruits (avocado, oranges, apricots)
- Some veggies (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, sweet potato)
Psyllium husk is a common fiber supplement, and it's what was used in many of the studies showing that soluble fiber may help with constipation.
But again, if your constipation isn't a result of your diet, then upping your fiber intake probably isn't going to help much.
Myth 3: Probiotics Will Move Things Along
Probiotics are good for our guts because they help to maintain a healthy microbiome. While there is a growing body of research showing they may play a beneficial role in some conditions — like irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, respiratory infections, and yes, constipation — there's still a lot we need to learn.
If you're interested in maintaining a healthy gut, aim to eat foods naturally rich in probiotics, such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso and kimchi. But just know that the verdict is still out when it comes to probiotics and constipation.
Myth 4: You Just Need to Drink More Water
Downing fluids because you're constipated may do much to get things moving, according to an older, foundational June 2005 study in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. But the only instance where drinking water may help is if you're dehydrated.
Staying hydrated, however, can help keep you from getting backed up in the first place. An April 2013 analysis in the American Journal of Gastroenterology assessed the diets and stool consistency of more than 9,000 adults and found that not getting enough liquids was a primary factor associated with constipation, more so than fiber intake.
Myth 5: Coffee Will Relieve Your Constipation
But the same study found that it doesn't work for everyone. The need to poop after coffee only occurred in about 30 percent of people.
It's important not to overdo it on the caffeine if you're trying to produce a BM because it could lead to dehydration, which makes constipation worse.
Caffeine is a diuretic, so it causes you to urinate more, according to the National Institutes of Health. If you're a regular coffee drinker and stick to moderate amounts, it's unlikely to cause dehydration, per a January 2014 study in PLOS One. Too much caffeine, however, can lead to dehydration, so be mindful of your intake.
- Gastroenterology: "Mechanisms, Evaluation, and Management of Chronic Constipation"
- American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine: "Closing America’s Fiber Intake Gap: Communication Strategies From a Food and Fiber Summit"
- Mayo Clinic: "Constipation"
- Gastroenterology: "American Gastroenterological Association Technical Review on Constipation"
- American Journal of Gastroenterology: "Myths and Misconceptions About Constipation"
- American Journal of Gastroenterology: "Association of Low Dietary Intake of Fiber and Liquids with Constipation: Evidence from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)"
- Gut: "Effect of Coffee on Distal Colon Function."
- National Institutes of Health: "Caffeine"
- PLOS One: "No Evidence of Dehydration with Moderate Daily Coffee Intake: A Counterbalanced Cross-Over Study in a Free-Living Population"
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.