Chronic constipation certainly isn’t uncommon in today’s society. Many people suffer from constipation because of a poor diet, stress, and lack of exercise. Small lifestyle changes can have a positive cumulative effect on your digestion. When more help is needed, medications can get things moving along.

Read on to find out what you can do to ease symptoms of chronic constipation.

Making changes to your daily routine

Small changes to your daily routine can improve constipation. Lack of exercise and a poor diet are two main causes of constipation, so start by adding some movement to your day, along with a few high-fiber foods.

You shouldn’t try to make big lifestyle changes all at once. This will be difficult to maintain in the long run. Instead, make an attempt to add a few of the following to your schedule until you establish a good daily routine:

  • Eat your meals around the same time each day.
  • Drink a glass of water right after you wake up.
  • Try eating bran cereal for breakfast in the morning.
  • Do some light exercise such as walking after breakfast.
  • Park at the end of the parking lot so you have to walk a bit to get inside your office.
  • Take a 20-minute walk during your lunch break.
  • Cook a new recipe using high-fiber foods, such as beans and legumes.
  • Pack a piece of fruit to eat as a snack.
  • Substitute white bread with whole wheat bread and white rice with brown rice.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • When you have the urge to have a bowel movement, use the bathroom right away. Don’t “hold it.”
  • Schedule in some uninterrupted time each day for a bowel movement. Research has shown that people with a regular bowel pattern empty their bowels at approximately the same time every day.
  • Keep a bottle of water with you at all times.
  • Try taking a class at a gym on a regular basis.

Taking a fiber supplement

Fiber supplements work by bulking up your stool. They’re sometimes referred to as bulk-forming agents. Bulky stools make your bowel contract, which helps push out the stool.

Taking a fiber supplement is fairly simple. They come in capsules and powder formulations, and even gummies and chewable tablets.

Fiber supplements may also have other benefits, including lowering your cholesterol and controlling blood sugar. One type of fiber, called inulin, also helps stimulate the growth of beneficial gut bacteria (bifidobacteria).

Examples of fiber supplements include:

  • polycarbophil (FiberCon)
  • inulin (Fiber Choice)
  • wheat dextrin (Benefiber)
  • methylcellulose (Citrucel)

Make sure you drink a lot of water along with a fiber supplement, or it could make your constipation worse.

Eating more dietary fiber

A simple way to help ease constipation issues is to eat more high-fiber foods. Dietary fiber is a mix of complex carbohydrates. It can be found in the leaves and stems of plants and the bran of whole grains. Nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables are also good sources. Meat and dairy products don’t contain any fiber.

Start by gradually adding more fiber to your diet. The following foods are high in dietary fiber:

  • whole wheat bread
  • fruits, such as berries, apples, oranges, bananas, pears, raisins, figs, and prunes
  • bran flakes
  • shredded wheat
  • popcorn
  • vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, avocado, and peas
  • beans and lentils
  • oatmeal
  • flaxseed
  • nuts

Make sure you’re eating whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices. Juices don’t have fiber.

According to the Mayo Clinic, men should aim for 30 to 38 grams of fiber per day, and women should consume 21 to 25 grams per day. Along with your high-fiber diet, also increase your intake of water and other liquids. Aim for at least 1.5 liters per day.

Taking a laxative (occasionally)

Although effective most of the time, laxatives aren’t usually a long-term solution to constipation problems. In fact, taking certain types of laxatives too often can cause dangerous side effects, such as electrolyte imbalances and dehydration.

If you need to take a laxative every once in a while to get things moving along, you should know that not all laxatives are the same. Some types of laxatives are harsher than others. Here are some of the different kinds of laxatives and information about how they work in your body to relieve constipation:

Stool softeners

Stool softeners are a type of laxative that works by adding water to stool to soften it and make it easier to pass. Stool softeners such as docusate sodium (Colace, Docusate) may take a couple days to start working. They’re better at preventing constipation than treating it, but they’re generally gentler than other types of laxatives.

Osmotic agents

Osmotic agents help retain the fluid in your stool. Some examples of osmotic laxatives include:

  • magnesium preparations (Milk of Magnesia)
  • polyethylene glycol PEG (Miralax)
  • sodium phosphates (Fleet Phospho-Soda)
  • sorbitol

Read over the directions carefully. Taking too much of this type of laxative can lead to harsh side effects, like cramping, diarrhea, dehydration, and an imbalance of electrolytes.

Stimulant laxatives

Stimulant laxatives function by making your intestines contract and moving stool along. Some examples of bowel stimulants include:

  • senna (Senokot)
  • bisacodyl (Ex-Lax, Dulcolax)

Stimulants are the most aggressive type of laxatives and only take a few hours to start working. You shouldn’t take them regularly. Taking them for a long period of time can change the tone of your large intestine and cause it to stop functioning correctly. If this happens, your colon may become dependent on using a laxative to have a bowel movement.

The bottom line

If you live with chronic constipation, returning to the basics with a high-fiber diet, water, and regular exercise can help restore bowel function. Making small changes in your diet, daily routine, water consumption, and physical activity can also aid your digestion. You can also turn to medications such as stool softeners and laxatives if you need more help.

Changes take time, but if you have any concerns, schedule an appointment with your doctor.