What To Do If You're Having "Quarantine Constipation," According To Experts

Certified holistic nutrition consultant By Lindsay Boyers
Certified holistic nutrition consultant
Lindsay Boyers is a nutrition consultant specializing in elimination diets, gut health, and food sensitivities. Lindsay earned a degree in food & nutrition from Framingham State University, and she holds a Certificate in Holistic Nutrition Consulting from the American College of Healthcare Sciences.
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If your current stay-at-home lifestyle has left you feeling, well, backed up...you're certainly not alone. While the conversation with your friends is likely centered around Tiger King, there's something else making the rounds that people are less eager to discuss: quarantine constipation.

Yup, that's a thing!

Tanya Zuckerbrot, R.D., defines quarantine constipation as "a change in bowel movements as a result of changes in routine. Maybe before social distancing you were successfully going to the bathroom every day, but now you're struggling to go three times a week." 

But why is this happening? "Lack of movement is likely a major cause of constipation during quarantine," says Zuckerbrot. "Studies have shown that insufficient physical activity and sedentary behaviors are associated with increased reports of constipation." She adds that "we're eating more junk and not eating enough fiber. Additionally, we're not drinking as much water, and proper hydration is integral to normal bowel movements."

To help quell your discomfort, we've chatted with an array of experts to figure out how to get things moving again during these unique times:

1. Focus on fiber-rich foods.

When rumors of a stay-at-home advisory first started circulating, most people hit the stores to stock up on nonperishable items, like rice, processed foods, and cereals. While these are definitely the most shelf-stable options out there, they're often lacking in nutrition, namely fiber, according to Zuckerbrot. "The less fiber you eat, the more likely you are to experience quarantine constipation," she says.

Conversely, "high-fiber foods increase frequency of normal bowel movements, help increase gut motility, and can even increase stool volume," she says. "Fiber is nature's broom, so it's no surprise that most quarantine diets, heavy in processed foods and lacking in fiber, aren't sufficient to get things moving."

For optimal bowel function, Zuckerbrot recommends getting at least 35 grams of fiber every day. It's necessary to include both insoluble fiber, which is found in wheat bran and vegetables, as well as soluble fiber, which comes from fruits, vegetables, and legumes. (Falafel recipe, anyone?)

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2. Eat more healthy fats.

In addition to getting enough fiber, it's also important to make sure your diet contains some healthy fats during this time, says Mark Hyman, M.D., a practicing family physician and pioneer in the field of functional medicine. "That includes wild fatty fish like sardines and salmon, avocado, and olive oil," he says. "Also, one of the best 'natural laxatives' is MCT oil. You can put it in your coffee—which also helps you go—or use it in your smoothies and salad dressings."

You don't have to overdo it, though, since too much fat can actually make constipation worse. A few ounces of fatty fish and a couple of teaspoons of oil per day should do the trick.

3. Take a probiotic supplement.

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Probiotics are a popular tool to help to nourish your gut and help keep digestion regular.* And with the increased stress a stay-at-home advisory brings, they may be more important than ever. Just know, some probiotics may be better than others.

"Choose a supplement with at least 50 billion CFU (colony-forming units), to help regulate your digestion and build a healthier gut microbiome," recommends board-certified physician Taz Bhatia, M.D. "Take a high-quality probiotic each morning with [a] breakfast smoothie, and consider rotating your probiotic every six weeks to maintain some bacterial diversity."

You can also include fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi, in your diet to get an extra daily dose of those good bacteria.

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4. Move your body every day.

While you might be secretly stoked at the thought of spending more time watching Netflix, inactivity can lead to constipation, especially if you've suddenly given up on your regular exercise routine. "Increasing physical activity can speed up transit time, meaning less water is reabsorbed from the stool, helping it to pass with ease," says Zuckerbrot. "Going for a daily walk and doing home workouts for even 20 to 30 minutes can increase blood flow and improve gut motility."

It's OK to spend some of your social-distancing time being lazy, but try to prioritize daily movement before you hit the couch.

5. Drink plenty of water.

Being stuck at home may also have you drinking less water, which is critical for normal bowel function. "In the large intestine, water is reabsorbed into the body and pulled out of stool, making it hard and difficult to pass," says Zuckerbrot. "We need to make sure we're replenishing that water and staying hydrated. Whether it's because we're exercising less—a time when most people can easily get in at least a bottle of water—or we're out of normal work routine, we're drinking less water." She suggests drinking 2 to 3 liters (68 to 101 ounces) of water a day to help fiber pass through the digestive tract and improve constipation.

Functional medicine doctor Wendie Trubow, M.D., adds that "one helpful ratio is to convert your weight into kilograms, and that's about how many ounces of water you need at a baseline—not including exercise." That means that if you weigh 150 pounds, you need to drink at least 68 ounces of water per day, at minimum.

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6. Stick to a regular poop schedule.

With everybody forced to stay home, it's likely that you've seen a lot of articles and social media posts about the importance of maintaining a regular routine. That applies to your bowel routine too.

Maintaining a regular poop schedule can train your body into recognizing when it's time to go. Terry Wahls, M.D., a physician and clinical professor at the University of Iowa, takes it a step further by suggesting that you add a hot drink to the mix. "Have a hot beverage and attempt to move your bowels the same time every day," she says. "Your body will learn the pattern and be more likely to have a daily bowel movement if you set up the pattern."

7. Incorporate intermittent fasting.

Intermittent fasting is double board-certified integrative physician Amy Shah, M.D.'s go-to tool for alleviating digestive upset, like constipation. "Since we're trying to reset the gut and give it a rest from all the digesting it's been doing, the first thing you should do is try to fast for at least 16 hours, which means you leave 16 hours between your last meal of the day and breakfast."

For example, you can have your fiber-rich dinner at 6 p.m. and then eat your breakfast at 10 a.m. Bonus points if you have a smoothie, which may be easier on digestion than solid food, for breakfast.

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8. Get in bed before 10 p.m.

With less to do, and more Netflix to watch, you may be staying up, and sleeping in, later. While you may not think this has any negative consequences aside from being tired, it may be a big player in quarantine constipation. "Changes in sleep patterns can affect our circadian rhythm, which controls both our sleep/wake cycles and our digestion," says Zuckerbrot. "This may be why most people have their bowel movements in the morning. Any change to your sleep cycle can cause changes in colonic motility, leading to delays in bowel movements or constipation." 

For optimal digestion and normal bowel function, try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning. And make sure you're getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

9. Figure out a way to calm down.

To state the obvious, this is a stressful time. And stress not only makes changes in bowel habits more likely, it also has a negative effect on your immune system. "I often tell people that if you are stressed, your body and your digestive tract hears and feels that stress, and as a result it slows down...and when it slows down, you get constipated," says Martin Singh, M.D., an integrative gastroenterologist. "Even if you aren't overtly stressed and pulling your hair out every minute, when there is a low level of stress, your body senses that and the motility, or way the gut squeezes and moves, slows down in anticipation of some major event that is going to happen."

Things may feel out of control right now, but limiting your exposure to fear-provoking media (that includes social media) is an excellent first step in lowering your stress and anxiety while staying at home. You can also try deep breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation, to start.

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10. Take a magnesium supplement.

Magnesium is a double-threat for quarantine constipation. Certain kinds of magnesium can act as an osmotic laxative, meaning it relaxes your bowels and pulls water into your intestines to add bulk to your stool and make it easier to pass.* Other forms of magnesium might help reduce stress levels and calm you down, so your digestive tract can start moving again.

Magnesium glycinate and citrate are two of the most common and absorbable forms, explains Natalie Butler, RDN, L.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist. "Which one you choose depends on what you are looking to target," she says. "Magnesium citrate has a laxative effect, so it is typically used to help gut issues and constipation. If you are concerned about magnesium deficiency or looking to reap the sleep and relaxation benefits of magnesium, you'll want the glycinate form."

If you want both of magnesium's benefits, you can alternate forms or take magnesium citrate in addition to eating a lot of magnesium-rich foods, like avocado, nuts, seeds, and bananas.

Bottom line.

If you're dealing with quarantine constipation, you're not alone. Many people are experiencing the same thing, from a combination of more junk food and less fiber, water, and movement. Fortunately, some simple lifestyle changes, like eating more fiber-rich foods, drinking enough water, getting 20 to 30 minutes of exercise each day, reducing your stress levels, and taking some targeted supplements, can help.

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