If you’re someone who releases soft stools every day, for example, and then you’re suddenly not able to go — or can produce only pencil-thin feces — it could point to an obstruction, like a mass or lesion, somewhere in your GI tract, says Reezwana Chowdhury, M.D., a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Trouble going can also be diet related. Increasing your water and fiber intake — try more fruits, vegetables and whole grains — can help with constipation. So can exercise.
“I tell many of my patients who have issues with constipation: The more you move, the more your gut moves,” Chowdhury says. “A sedentary lifestyle does slow your gut down.”
Constipation also becomes more common with age. “Things just slow down” as we get older, Chey explains. Often, people are less active, their diets change, and they’re taking more medications. Add all those factors together and you have a greater likelihood of experiencing constipation.
If your issues lie on the opposite side of the spectrum and your bowel movements are frequent and watery (diarrhea), it may be due to something you ate or a sign that your body is fighting a virus or struggling with a food intolerance.
The Bristol Stool Scale.
Diarrhea is common and usually goes away on its own, according to Ahuja. But if it lasts more than a few days, it could signal a more serious problem. Another thing to be on the lookout for: having loose stools and frequent trips to the bathroom at night.
“We always tell people that if they're having diarrhea at night, they need to see their doctor, because that indicates that there's some underlying disease, like inflammatory bowel disease, or microscopic colitis or celiac disease. There's something else going on,” Chey says.
Many health care professionals use what’s called the Bristol Stool Scale to help patients assess the consistency of their bowel movements, with pebble-like and lumpy, sausage-shaped stools representing constipation; smoother and softer stools depicting more normal bowel movements; and mushy or watery stools depicting diarrhea. (See image on the side for more information.)
Stay on top of screenings
Any sudden changes in your bowel behaviors that last more than a day or two warrant a call to your doctor, who may order a colonoscopy “just to make sure that there's no inflammation or evidence of cancer or something else that might have led to that abrupt change in your bowel habits,” Chey says.
Adults 45 and older should get regular colorectal cancer screenings, according to the American Cancer Society. One option is a colonoscopy every 10 years; an alternative is a stool-based test, which is taken every one to three years. People at higher risk for colon cancer may need to be screened earlier and more often.
“The parting line is going to be, when in doubt, talk to a physician. We're always happy to talk about what's worrisome and what's not,” Ahuja says.
Constipated? Try these foods
Sixty-three million Americans deal with chronic constipation. Drinking lots of water and other liquids and getting plenty of exercise can get things moving. So can eating more fiber from foods including the following:
- Whole grains: Whole wheat bread and pasta, oatmeal and bran flake cereals
- Legumes: Lentils, black beans, kidney beans, soybeans and chickpeas
- Fruits: Berries, apples with the skin on, oranges and pears
- Vegetables: Carrots, broccoli, green peas and collard greens
- Nuts: Almonds, peanuts and pecans
Source: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.