Can coffee, fluids, or physical activity help with constipation?

Coffee may wake up the gut

“Coffee stimulates the colon to contract,” explains Jacqueline Wolf, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Not a coffee drinker? Eating a meal may have the same impact.

“When food hits the stomach, you get a reflex that stimulates the colon to contract, which is why a lot of people feel the need to go to the bathroom right after eating,” says Wolf.

In one study (funded in part by a coffee industry group) on 12 people without constipation, regular coffee stimulated contractions in the colon similar to a meal, 23 percent more than decaf coffee, and 60 percent more than hot water.

Can coffee help people who are often backed up? No studies have looked.

What we know about drinking more water

“We often recommend that people with constipation drink more water,” says Lucinda Harris, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. “But the issue hasn’t actually been well studied.”

If you’re truly dehydrated, that could make you irregular. “Water hydrates and softens the stool, which helps it move through you more easily,” says Wolf.

But if you’re not dehydrated—your urine should be no darker than lemonade—don’t expect more water to help.

When 15 adults without constipation were instructed to double—and then triple—their usual fluid intake for two days each, their stool output didn’t change…though they did urinate more.

There’s no need to guzzle water, Harris explains. “You just need to be adequately hydrated.”

Few good studies have looked at whether regular exercise can keep you regular

“There just isn’t a lot of evidence to support the idea that exercise is helpful for constipation,” admits Harris. “Anecdotally, my patients always say that if they’re more active, they have better bowel habits. It certainly can’t hurt.”

What’s more, “we know that there are stronger contractions in the colon first thing in the morning. Take advantage of that by doing light exercise or stretching, eating breakfast, and maybe drinking a cup of coffee right when you wake up.”

Photo: Mariia Korneeva/