When you're uncomfortably constipated, the last thing you want is to inadvertently do something that can plug up the poop in your pipes even more.
Here, Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York-based internist and gastroenterologist, discusses six bowel-blocking behaviors to banish from your routine when your gut is already gridlocked.
1. Eat Processed Foods
From your favorite frozen dinners to fast-food takeout, processed foods may offer convenience, but they can also cause constipation by slowing down the digestive system, Dr. Sonpal says.
For one, processed foods often lack fiber, which could upset digestion and aggravate existing GI symptoms. Plus, they contain "high levels of trans fats, which increase gut inflammation, and additives like preservatives, sweeteners or colorants, which can alter the balance of the microbiome of the gut," Dr. Sonpal explains.
Do this instead: Keep the processed foods to a minimum and pile your plate with fiber-rich whole foods like fruits, veggies, legumes and whole grains. But be careful with gluten-containing grains like wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut and triticale, which may trigger constipation for some, Dr. Sonpal adds.
2. Drink Alcohol
If you're constipated, booze may bind up your bowels even worse.
"That's because if you drink alcohol in large amounts, it can increase the amount of fluids lost through your urine, causing dehydration," Dr. Sonpal says. "And poor hydration, either due to not drinking enough water or losing too much of it through urine, is often linked to an increased risk of constipation."
That said, there's no research to support a direct link between alcohol consumption and constipation, and it's possible that these effects vary from person to person (for example, some people report experiencing diarrhea, rather than constipation, after a night of drinking), Dr. Sonpal says.
Do this instead: Limit your liquor and up your H2O intake.
"Those wanting to counteract the potentially dehydrating and constipating effects of alcohol should try to offset each serving of alcohol with a glass of water or another nonalcoholic beverage," Dr. Sonpal recommends.
3. Consume Caffeine
Believe it or not, your morning java can jam up your bowels. While it's true that the caffeine can stimulate the muscles in your digestive system to contract, causing a bowel movement, caffeine can also cause constipation, Dr. Sonpal says.
Just like alcohol, caffeine (especially a lot of it) is dehydrating, which can prevent your plumbing from functioning smoothly.
Do this instead: If you're constipated, choose decaffeinated beverages (but keep in mind decaffeinated coffee may not be 100-percent caffeine free) and avoid foods with caffeine like chocolate, Dr. Sonpal says.
4. Shun Physical Activity
While your tummy might feel uncomfortable, your constipation isn't likely to subside if you simply sit on the sofa.
"Not moving around enough slows food from passing through your large intestine," Dr. Sonpal says.
This can be particularly problematic for people who must stay in bed a lot or can't move much because of a health problem, he adds.
Do this instead: If you're physically able, hop off the couch and get moving. The colon reacts to physical activity, so regular exercise promotes pooping. Even light walking can be beneficial.
5. Take Iron and Calcium Supplements
Your daily supplement may exacerbate (or even be the source of) your stomach woes. Case in point: a February 2015 meta-analysis in PLOS One found that iron supplements appear to alter gut microbiota and cause inflammation in the mucosal lining, which can cause gastrointestinal side effects like constipation.
Similarly, calcium supplements may also have a binding effect, sometimes resulting in gas, constipation and bloating, per the Mayo Clinic.
Do this instead: If you have a health condition or a specific deficiency that requires you to take iron or calcium, speak with a doctor before you stop taking a vitamin or mineral supplement, Dr. Sonpal says. Your medical professional may be able to suggest alternatives (like consuming more foods rich in iron or calcium) when constipation is a concern.
6. Overdo It With Laxatives
"Laxatives are used to treat constipation, but when abused, laxatives can actually cause constipation to worsen," Dr. Sonpal says.
Here's why: "Laxatives work by artificially stimulating, or irritating, the nerves in the large intestine, which makes the intestinal muscles contract and move the stool out of the body," Dr. Sonpal explains.
But prolonged use of laxatives might harm nerves in the colon, impeding your intestines' capacity to contract on its own, according to Harvard Health Publishing, which also notes that this is less likely to result thanks to newer versions of laxatives.
Do this instead: Try sipping on warm liquids, particularly in the morning; drink two to four extra glasses of water a day (unless otherwise instructed by your physician); and nibble on prunes and bran cereal, Dr. Sonpal says.
If these things don't provide relief, you can ask your doctor or pharmacist for guidance in choosing a laxative (each works in a different way to ease constipation) and advice on how long you should take it, says Dr. Sonpal, adding that you might start off with something more gentle, like a stool softener.