Staying home amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) epidemic has made us all eat a little differently. You’re likely consuming foods that you’re not used to as you reach into the back of your fridge and pantry to make due in between grocery trips or deliveries. You might also not be exercising as much as you normally would — which can result in more than just an expanding waistline.
To put it bluntly, there’s a good chance you could be dealing with constipation, or bowel movements that are sporadic or difficult to pass.
“Constipation can be a result of lack of movement and poor dietary choices, but also a result of stress and anxiety,” says Eliza Kingsford, MA, LPC, NCC. “It’s no surprise that people are finding themselves more constipated during this time of crisis.”
The good news: By tweaking your diet, focusing on stress-relieving activities and making movement a mandatory part of the day, you can ease your symptoms and get your bowels moving properly again.
What To Eat
If you’re impacted, you want to make sure you are getting enough dietary fiber, specifically the insoluble kind. This binds with water to add bulk to the stool, helping it pass through the intestines. It’s important to make sure you are also staying hydrated so the fiber has plenty of water to draw on to become bulky and move effortlessly through the body.
“Eat well and eat on a schedule,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, and author of Eat Clean, Stay Lean: The Diet ($9.40, Amazon). “In addition to hydrating with water throughout the day, include more watering foods like soups, salads, and cooked veggies. You want to focus on vegetables and fruits, oats, nuts and seeds, and beans.”
Fruits and vegetables that are highest in fiber include artichoke, broccoli, cauliflower, avocado, apples, berries, and pears.
Be careful to add these foods to your diet slowly, though. “Overdoing them can also contribute to the constipation,” says Kingsford, especially if you are not drinking enough water. “If you are someone who does not eat any of these foods, I don’t recommend a complete dietary overhaul and adding them all in at once. Start slow. And if you are already used to these foods, you can try and increase your intake of fiber to see if that helps.”
What to Avoid
Sometimes it’s not enough to add foods: To alleviate constipation, you want to also cut some things out of your diet. “Avoiding sugar, processed foods and alcohol can also help with constipation,” says Kingsford. “Subsequently, avoiding these will also help with the stress and anxiety that often exacerbate constipation.”
Bazilian says others triggers include fried foods, coffee and tea, high-gluten foods, and non-fibrous foods eaten in large amounts.
If you’re a regular gym-goer and it’s now closed, you might be at a loss as to how to maintain your workout routine. This is key not only in reducing stress and keeping your weight in check, but in avoiding constipation as well.
The colon responds to activity, helping stool move through the intestines more efficiently. Exercise also results in more blood delivered to the organs. For the intestines, this means more impactful contractions which moves the food waste through the body more quickly.
“Take as many walks outside as you can, especially if it is sunny because getting vitamin D has also been shown to reduce stress,” says Kingsford. “Bonus points if you can walk in nature or somewhere you feel grounded as this also provides noticeable stress relief. If you live in a city or are unable to use the outdoors to move around during this time, try looking up a fitness or yoga class online that you can participate in regularly to keep your body active.”
If you’re working from home, get up from your chair regularly and walk up and down the stairs or take a ten-minute walking around the block break.
Stress hormones can ignite a “fight or flight” response in humans, which pulls blood from the intestines toward the heart, lungs and brain, causing the intestines to slow down. What’s more, when stressed the body releases a hormone called corticotrophin-releasing factor that slows the intestines down and causes them to become inflamed.
The solution here is to minimize stress, which can be difficult when you have kids at home and focused on remote learning or parents or other relatives whose health you worry about. Still, if constipation is an issue, stress-relieving exercises can help get impacted stool moving again.
“Focus on belly breathing, meditation and mindfulness,” says Kingsford. “These will help you feel less stressed and should also help with the constipation.”
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