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I like to move it, move it: a guide to combating constipation

I like to move it, move it: a guide to combating constipation

Being “regular” means something different to just about everyone. For some it’s going to the bathroom once or twice a day, for others it’s every other. Before you start trolling your local pharmacy looking for cure-alls to keep you consistent, here’s what you need to know:

How the digestive system works
The digestive system consists of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and a group of accessory digestive organs. The GI tract and accessory organs work together to convert food into energy and nutrients. The GI tract is a series of hollow organs that includes the mouth, pharynx, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, colon, rectum, and anus. Everything we eat (late-night pizza, we’re looking at you!) passes through the GI tract and out the other end. Solid accessory organs — like the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas — aid in digestion by breaking down food and making it easier for the GI tract to do its job.

What causes constipation
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), “Constipation is a condition in which you have fewer than three bowel movements a week, or hard, dry, and small bowel movements that are painful or difficult to pass.” It can be a result of a poor diet, lack of exercise, or a slow digestive system. Constipation also has other, less-well-known causes, including certain medications and supplements, as well as potentially serious medical conditions.

The low-down on laxatives
Laxatives are a surefire way to get the bowels moving and come in all different forms (think pill, liquid, gel, powder). They can be divided into five different subtypes: osmotic agents (which soften stool by helping them retain fluid), bulk-forming agents (which add fiber and heft to your stool), stool softeners (that add fluid into stool, making it easier to pass), lubricants (like enemas that coat the stool’s surface in liquid), and stimulants (which irritate the intestines, forcing the stool to move).

Recent research indicates that 40% of Americans use laxatives to relieve constipation. And their popularity should come as no surprise: laxatives are highly effective and conveniently sold over the counter. However, they should be used on a need-be basis only as they remove more water weight than waste and can cause dehydration and malnutrition over time. Even those marketed as all-natural supplements should be side-eyed since the FDA does not approve or regulate dietary supplements. Bulk-forming agents, like Metamucil, are the only laxatives recommended for extended use because they add nutrients to the body and help the bowels retain water.

How diet and exercise help
There are other ways to get going, like drinking more water, eating more fiber, and noshing on naturally probiotic foods (green peas, live-cultured yogurt, kombucha, dark chocolate). Probiotics are good bacteria that live in the gut and, according to the Mayo Clinic, “your lower digestive tract alone teems with a complex and diverse community.” Water breaks down food and keeps all that good-for-you fiber moving through the body; and certain fibers are known as prebiotics, which help the probiotics grow. Research indicates that getting more exercise helps, too, in that it increases blood flow throughout the body.

If you’re in need of a better BM, a lifestyle change is a good place to start and should be undertaken before supplements are seriously considered. Not all poops are created equal, but a better meal plan and an extra spin class could make your next trip to the bathroom a whole lot easier.