A bowl of whole grain cereal and fruit, which may help relieve constipation.

How do you know whether you’re pooping enough? In healthy people, the frequency of bowel movements has a surprisingly wide range. “Normal can be anything from three times a day to having one bowel movement every three days,” says Judy Nee, M.D., an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

It's not all about frequency, though. Constipation is usually defined as having fewer than three bowel movements per week. But if you’re defecating more often than that yet straining when you go, passing hard or lumpy stools, or feeling like a bowel movement was incomplete, you are also considered to have constipation and would probably benefit from a few strategies to retune your gastrointestinal doings.

Whether your problems are chronic (experiencing two or more of the above “symptoms” for three months or more) or occasional, you may be wondering how to get relief. We spoke with experts and did some research to find out which remedies work and which don’t relieve constipation.

Adjust Your Diet and Habits

The first step in addressing constipation is to make sure you’re consuming sufficient dietary fiber. You’re probably not getting enough. The Department of Agriculture recommends women get at least 22 grams per day and men get 28. But on average, most adults in the U.S. get only about 16 daily grams.

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The reason? Fiber adds bulk to your stool. “The increased bulk in the colon induces colon contractions,” propelling waste out of the bowel, says Michael Camilleri, M.D., a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. How to fiber up:

Make it a point to consume high-fiber foods on a daily basis. For example, a half-cup of cooked kidney beans has about 7 grams of fiber, a cup of cooked rolled oats has about 14 grams, a cup of peanuts has about 12 grams, and a pear with its skin on has about 5 grams.

According to Camilleri, fruit may be especially helpful because the sugars it contains can help the intestines retain water, which in turn helps waste material pass more easily through the colon.

That appears to include prunes, the dried plums that have long been thought of as a sure path to regularity. A randomized, controlled trial published in 2011 in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics compared prunes with the over-the-counter (OTC) fiber supplement psyllium and found that prunes (one cup of pitted prunes has 12 grams of fiber) led to more frequent bowel movements and better stool consistency than the supplement (though note that the study was funded by the California Dried Plum Board).

But if you’re having trouble getting enough fiber through food alone, try one of the OTC fiber supplements. Those that contain psyllium (Metamucil, Konsyl, and generic) are a good option, according to Consumer Reports’ 2015 Best Buy Drugs report on medication for constipation.

For high-fiber foods and supplements, however, be careful not to add too much to your diet too fast. “Paradoxically, it can constipate you initially,” Nee says, or cause you to feel bloated or gassy.

Instead, start with small changes; Nee advises ramping up your intake over a period of several weeks. Spread your fiber (whether from food or supplements) across the day, and be sure to drink plenty of water, which helps your body digest the fiber.

And get some physical activity, too. A sedentary lifestyle may increase the likelihood of constipation, especially in older people. And while the evidence for exercise as a constipation treatment is mixed, it may help with an increase in fiber consumption and staying well-hydrated.

Another key strategy to try, according to Nee: scheduling bowel movements and giving yourself enough time for them. A good time is shortly after eating, because eating, especially in the morning, Nee says, tells your gastrointestinal tract to start moving.

And if you’re away from home, try to stay on that schedule. Some people become constipated while they’re traveling because they’re off their normal bathroom routine.

When to Consider OTC Laxatives

If you’ve boosted your fiber intake but are still constipated, consider an OTC laxative, which can facilitate easier bowel movements. Be sure to follow dosing and timing instructions, which can vary from product to product.

Two main categories of OTC laxatives are available: osmotic and stimulant. Osmotic laxatives cause more water to be retained in the intestines and colon, which helps waste pass through the colon, Camilleri says.

One of the most common active ingredients in this category is polyethylene glycol (found in HealthyLax, MiraLax, and generic).

Stimulant laxatives cause contractions in the colon that move stool along. Common formulations include senna (ExLax, Senokot, and generic) and bisacodyl (Correctol, Dulcolax, and generic).

Which to consider? Consumer Reports’ Best Buy Drugs experts recommend the osmotic laxative polyethylene glycol as a good first option because it appears to have the strongest evidence of effectiveness and may have fewer side effects than others.

Stimulant laxatives can be helpful but are only designed to help resolve an occasional bout of constipation and aren't recommended for children under 6. Stool softeners, like docusate (Colace and others and generic) are also available, but evidence suggests that they may be less useful than fiber or laxatives.

Can you become dependent on laxatives, as rumor has it? The experts we spoke to said it’s unlikely. But some older adults may need to use laxatives on a fairly regular basis, according to Camilleri, who notes that laxatives can give an assist to the colon function that may slow with age.

“I try to reassure my patients that, yes, they might require something to help their bowels chronically, almost on a daily basis, but there’s no evidence that this is addictive, that it’s going to change their personality,” Camilleri says.

If You Need More Help

Lifestyle changes and OTC laxatives aren't helping enough? Talk with your doctor. A number of medications can contribute to constipation, including antidepressants, antihistamines, some blood pressure and cholesterol-lowering medications, and, notably, opioids and other painkillers. So be sure your doctor is aware of any OTC and prescription medications you’re taking. He or she may be able to help you adjust your regimen. 

Prescription drugs are also available for chronic constipation, but our experts say that you should consider them only if other measures have failed. These include the often advertised drugs designed specifically for opioid-induced constipation: methylnaltrexone (Relistor), naloxegol (Movantik), and naldemedine (Symproic). Your doctor can help you figure out whether one of these medications is right for you.

And last, Camilleri says to be aware that for some people with chronic constipation, the abdominal, pelvic floor, and sphincter muscles may not be working with each other or may be contracting at the wrong times, making evacuation difficult. (Your doctor might do a rectal exam or another test to measure the pressure and sensation of rectal and sphincter muscles.)

If this is found to be the problem, you may need a few sessions with a specialized physical therapist “to learn how to relax the sphincter muscle and the pelvic floor muscle to facilitate defecation,” Camilleri says.