By Ginger Bailey, RDN, CD
When everything is going well, food moves through our system like a nicely regulated conveyer belt. Fuel goes in, the nutrients we need get extracted and absorbed, and the waste comes out the other end for elimination. But sometimes, this conveyor belt doesn’t work so well – especially if it moves too slowly near the end. When that happens, things get backed up, which can result in some very uncomfortable symptoms. I’m talking, of course, about constipation, and if you’ve ever suffered from it, you know it’s no laughing matter.
Fortunately, there are many things you can do with your diet to keep this system flowing well.
Six Ways to Keep Your Conveyor Belt Moving Smoothly
There are several factors that can make things move slower than they should. Here are a few things you can do with your diet if you frequently find yourself getting “backed up”.
- Make sure you get enough fiber. Fiber does two critical things. It helps hold more water in your colon so that your stool doesn’t get dry and hard. It also helps provide bulk that triggers peristalsis – the muscular contractions in our digestive tract that propel food forward. Again, think of it like a grocery store conveyer belt. It helps your colon know there is something there so it can move things along. Fiber is found mainly in fruits, veggies, whole grains, and legumes.
- Ease up on the starch and protein. Starches and proteins tend to be more binding. They will usually cause your stool to be harder and hold less water in the colon. It’s okay to have some starch and protein, so long as they are eaten along with fruits and veggies—foods that have a higher fiber content. Many people eat too much starch and protein in proportion to the number of fruits and vegetables they consume, which can cause problems with regularity.
- Drink more water. Most people don’t get adequate fluid intake. On top of that, many people consume caffeine which causes more fluid loss! If there isn’t enough fluid going through your system, your colon will try to reabsorb as much fluid as it can to prevent extra losses. In severe cases, this can cause a blockage.
- Avoid unnecessary supplements. Many supplements are poorly absorbed by the body. If something isn’t well-absorbed, it will just move through your digestive tract and can stop things up. Look for the USP label on your supplements to make sure they have been tested for absorbability. Try to avoid taking nutritional supplements unless there is no way to get those nutrients through food. (For example, due to food allergies or other medical conditions.) Ask your doctor or dietitian for recommendations about what is necessary for you.
- Get up and move! When you get moving, it helps promote peristalsis. If people aren’t getting enough physical movement, they will also tend to have more issues with constipation. Getting up and moving, even in short increments, can really help you get “unstuck”!
- Are you taking medications that can cause constipation? Opiate pain medication and muscle relaxers are known to slow the system down and cause constipation. There are other medications that can also have this side effect. If you are concerned about this, talk with your doctor about all the medications and supplements you take. You can discuss options you might have to either change or discontinue medication if other interventions have failed.
Hopefully, a few of these simple tips will help get things flowing better – and you feeling better. But, if these suggestions are not enough to fix your slow digestion problems, then it is time to talk with a gastroenterologist or a dietitian who can evaluate your situation and recommend next steps.
Constipation can be a symptom of several gastrointestinal conditions. It is best to be sure there is no significant medical reason for your situation, then work on the right solution for your system – everyone is unique.
The specialists at Granite Peaks Gastroenterology work with patients with these issues every day. Be sure to talk with them if you are suffering with any sort of digestive health problems to get the expert care you need.