If you think you’re the only one logging extra time on the toilet, you’re misinformed. Almost everyone deals with constipation at some point. In fact, around $800 million is spent on laxatives in the U.S. each year, says Harvard Health Publications.
Being backed up is uncomfortable, to say the least—but there are a lot of things it can reveal about your health. “Your poop says a lot about you and we don’t give it enough attention,” says Marina Chaparro, R.D.N., C.D.E., M.P.H., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of Nutrichicos.
Keep these seven common constipation causes (and what you can do about them) in mind the next time you’re trapped on the porcelain throne.
The usual culprit: a lack of fiber. “The majority of the population doesn’t meet their daily needs for fiber, which is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men,” says Chaparro. “Most Americans eat only about 13 to 15 grams per day.”
Fiber helps maintain a healthy GI tract and aids in digestion, explains Chaparro. To hit your daily fiber needs, load up on whole grains, legumes, nuts, vegetables, and fruit—especially the skins, like that of apples. If you have trouble packing your daily grub with fiber, try a fiber supplement, recommends Shilpa Mehra, M.D., assistant professor of gastroenterology at Montefiore Medical Center.
Also, watch out for foods that can make constipation worse, including fatty foods like cheese, potato chips, and anything fried, says Mehra. “These foods are fine in moderation, but when they are consumed without other more fiber-containing foods, they can be constipating,” she says. “Fats are digested later in the GI tract and can slow down the passage of roughage. This doesn’t mean you should avoid fat containing foods altogether—but make sure you’re eating a diet balanced in protein, fat, and carbs.”
If you’re struggling to go and your poop looks like pebbles or pellets, you’re not eating enough, says Mehra. Since everyone has unique caloric needs depending on their body mass, gender, and activity level, speak with a nutritionist if you’re not sure how to structure your diet.
You Aren’t Drinking Enough Water
Not-so-fun fact: Your poop can be dehydrated, so drinking plenty of H20 is crucial to bowel health. “Getting enough water is vital, because dehydrated stool struggles to move through the colon,” says Mehra. Make sure you’re drinking at least six to eight cups of water every day.
Poop problems are not quite what we look forward to about going on vacation—but unfortunately, they’re pretty common. Logging lots of time on planes, trains, or in the car can affect your toilet habits for a few reasons: “Not eating the foods you usually eat, changing your daily routine, skipping meals, and altering your bathroom schedule can all affect your regularity,” says Chaparro. Moving around gets your stomach muscles contracting, which can push digestion along—so hours spent sitting in transit are the enemy, she explains. Plus, being at such high altitudes when we fly tends to dehydrate us.
Chaparro recommends taking a daily fiber supplement, carrying a water bottle, and being stocked on healthy snacks while traveling. “Trail mix is an easy snack to make at home and stash for when you’re on the go,” she says. “Or, you can always grab a whole-grain granola or nut bar on the road—just make sure it contains at least three grams of fiber per serving and as little sugar as possible.”
You’re On Certain Meds
Some blood pressure medications, anti-depressants, pain medicines, antacids, and even iron supplements or multivitamins high in iron can back you up, according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library.
“An over-the-counter stool softener, fiber supplement, or osmotic laxative (like Miralax) may help with mild constipation,” says Mehra. “But if none of these options bring relief, see a GI doc.”
You Have IBS
Frequent toilet troubles can be a symptom of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. “If you have constipation along with abdominal pain, or weeks of constipation and weeks of diarrhea within three to six months of each other, you may have IBS,” says. Mehra. If these symptoms sound familiar, see your doc.
You Hold It In
When you know you’ve gotta go but hold it in, you’re setting yourself up for more stomach trouble down the line. “Some people hold their stool until they come home from work,” says Mehra. “This can cause hemorrhoids and even permanently elongate your colon over time, which can worsen constipation and predispose you to further GI issues.” So, please, when you gotta go…go.
You’re Having Pelvic Floor Issues
“If you feel like you can never get all of your stool out, or have to use your finger or something else to pull it out, you need to see a doctor,” says Mehra. People who have given birth vaginally or had prior pelvic injuries are the most likely to deal with pelvic floor dysfunction, in which muscles are weak or cannot relax, later on, she explains. Physical therapy can help rebuild muscle function, though surgery may be recommended in more extreme cases.
When else should you call the doc?
Mehra recommends making an appointment if you don’t change your eating habits but randomly experience constipation, find blood in your poo, go fewer than two or three times per week, feel like you strain every time you go, or have abdominal pain multiple times per week.