Changes to digestive regularity are a common problem that affects almost everyone at one time or another. You may not realise it, but your lifestyle could be to blame.
Many of the occasional backups that we all experience are related to simple lifestyle factors. Even though a lot of complexity goes along with any topic related to digestive wellbeing, there are a few common lifestyle-related causes and easy solutions you can use to keep things moving.
Health experts define constipation as a combination of symptoms that includes passing two or fewer bowel movements in a week, very hard or dry stools, and excessive straining to have a bowel movement (1). Other than these concerns, there is a surprisingly wide range of what is considered normal in terms of answering nature’s call. Even if your experience doesn’t meet this technical definition of constipation, any substantial change to your normal patterns can still leave you feeling uncomfortable.
Nearly everyone experiences constipation once in a while, but don’t wait to talk to your doctor if you experience a problem that concerns you. If occasional backups are slowing you down, the following list of lifestyle habits might help you to get things moving again.
1. Get Stress Under Control
Your level of stress can make an impact on every aspect of your life, even your bathroom breaks. In a survey of lifestyle and bathroom habits of healthy women aged 18 to 81 years old, stress was consistently at the top of the list for factors that impacted regularity (2).
Emotional and psychological stress triggers the body’s fight or flight response—in technical terms, stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS. The SNS is like a master control dial that cranks up all of the body’s systems that can help you fight off danger or run away. At the same time, the SNS dials down other body systems that are less important in an emergency, such as digestion.
If stress has your body in a constant state of emergency, it can also have an impact on many aspects of digestive health, including regularity. Finding healthy ways to manage the stresses of everyday life can be an important tool for promoting digestive well-being.
2. Get More Exercise
Exercise is just as important for digestive health as it is for the rest of your body. Making physical activity part of your daily lifestyle is one of the factors that can best help to improve regularity.
On the other hand, too little exercise can slow things down significantly. A sedentary lifestyle or prolonged periods of inactivity are common factors in bringing digestion to a halt. But regular, moderate physical activity, such as walking or cycling, can reduce the chances of experiencing constipation (3).
3. Drink More Water
How well you keep yourself hydrated can have a large influence on digestive health. Even mild dehydration can have a negative impact on a person’s regularity. The reason is that hydration and digestion are closely linked because the large intestine plays an important role in maintaining the body’s water balance.
As a person starts to become dehydrated, the large intestine overcompensates by absorbing more water. After the large intestine has absorbed most of the water from its contents, the end result can be excessively hard, dry stools. To avoid this uncomfortable situation, make sure to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.
4. Get More Fiber, Both Soluble and Insoluble
Dietary fiber is one of the most important components of your diet with respect to digestive and overall intestinal health. At it’s most basic, dietary fiber is the indigestible components of plant-based foods, but it comes in several different types that have different impacts on digestion.
Some types of fiber serve as food for friendly intestinal bacteria, such as certain types of soluble fiber, while other types of fiber, such as insoluble fiber, add bulk and help to retain moisture, making stools easier to pass.
Most people don’t consume even half of the recommended daily amount of fiber in their usual diets. On average, fibre intake for Americans is about 15 grams per day. The recommended level is between 25 and 38 grams of fiber daily, depending on a person’s age and gender (4).
Many people find it challenging to eat enough fiber-rich foods. But it shouldn’t be too difficult to consume enough roughage as long as your diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and legumes. In addition, using fiber supplements or products especially formulated to be high in fiber can help many people in meeting their daily fiber needs.
It’s also worth mentioning that significant diet or lifestyle changes can disrupt your usual daily rhythm, even when these changes are good for your health overall. If you have recently made a major change in your eating pattern, it’s not uncommon to experience temporary changes in bowel habits while your system adjusts to a new normal.
If occasional irregularity is has been a problem for you, consider the impact your lifestyle may have on your intestinal health. Basic elements of your lifestyle, such as how regularly you exercise, how much water you drink, or how you manage everyday stress can make a difference in improving your digestive health.
- Bharucha AE, Dorn SD, Lembo A, Pressman A. American Gastroenterological Association medical position statement on constipation. Gastroenterology. 2013. January;144(1): 211–7.
- Zutshi M, Hull TL, Bast J, Hammel J. Female bowel function: the real story. Dis Colon Rectum. 2007 Mar;50(3):351-8.
- Dukas, L., Willett, W.C., and Giovannucci, E.L. Association between physical activity, fiber intake, and other lifestyle variables and constipation in a study of women. Am J Gastroenterol. 2003; 98: 1790–1796
- US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, January 2011.