We may take ibuprofen when we have a headache or cramps, thinking it will make us feel better. Generally, it does. But for some of us, there's a really annoying — and uncomfortable — potential side effect of ibuprofen, and that is constipation.
What Ibuprofen Does
"Ibuprofen prevents your body from forming the protective mucus layer of your stomach that prevents the stomach from being damaged by stomach acid," says Dr. Christopher Hollingsworth, a general and endovascular surgeon at NYC Surgical Associates. Using this medication for the long-term is associated with stomach ulcers for this reason. It's also why a lot of doctors put patients on an antacid in conjunction with ibuprofen.
Ibuprofen will cause your stomach and (both) intestines to move more slowly. "It slows down intestinal motility, the muscle contractions in the bowel that squeeze the digested contents forward through the bowel," says Dr. Hollingsworth. "The same inflammatory pathway they block also leads to the production of prostaglandins that are involved in regulating your stomach and intestines. By inhibiting these actions, use of aspirin and Ibuprofen every day can also cause constipation as an unwanted side effect. This side effect occurs when using these medications daily at the full dosage," says Dr. Hollingsworth.
Every Person Is Different
Some people have constipation with the use of ibuprofen. "About 1 to 3 percent of patients report constipation as an adverse reaction," says Dr. Alana Biggers, MD, MPH, and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) College of Medicine. Everyone's body reacts differently from taking medications. "There is no specific dose that causes constipation. Some people may experience constipation at lower doses, while others may not experience constipation until using higher doses of ibuprofen. Additionally, more frequent use of ibuprofen, such as daily use, may lead to constipation for one person versus someone who takes ibuprofen occasionally, such as once a week or month," Dr. Biggers says.
How It Makes You Constipated
As for the dosage, while every person is different, for many, constipation starts at around 600 mg per day (three regular-strength pills). "If you find yourself getting blocked up, upping both your fluid and fiber intake is a great place to start," says Sonia Patel, chief pharmacist at Capsule, NYC's online pharmacy. Fiber works as a natural laxative by drawing the water you drink into your stool, while fluid softens the stool and helps it move through your body faster.
For fiber, green vegetables like broccoli, fruits with edible skin like apples, and nuts and legumes are easy add-ons to any meal. "Try to slightly overshoot the 2.2 liters of water per day the Mayo Clinic recommends, and avoid caffeine and alcohol, which are dehydrating," says Patel. In addition, get out and exercise, Patel says, because physical activity encourages the body to move food through faster (you need the fuel) and it helps prevent fluid from being reabsorbed. "Work in some yogurt with live bacterial cultures or probiotic supplements, both of which help nourish and support a healthy gut. If you want to go the medicine route, mild laxatives such as senna or stool softeners can temporarily help, but only use those as a last resort, as your body can become dependent on them to stay regular, taking your problem from temporary to chronic," says Patel.
If you are suffering from constipation, stool softeners like docusate sodium, may help, too. If the problem persists, ask your doctor for more help.