Constipation is a condition in which you can’t move your bowels on a regular schedule, resulting in dry, hard stool that is difficult to pass.


Source: Adapted from Looking After Your Body: An Owner’s Guide to Successful Aging, Reader’s Digest

What is constipation?

Constipation is a condition in which you can’t move your bowels on a regular schedule, resulting in dry, hard stool that is difficult to pass. Normal bowel habits differ among healthy people. Some people have one or more bowel movements daily, while others may have just two to three a week. You are said to be constipated when your normal pattern slows dramatically.

Who is at risk for constipation?

Any change from your regular diet may cause your stool to lose water and dry out as it moves through the large intestine (colon). Other constipation triggers include changes in exercise habits or lifestyle, a lack of dietary fibre, unrelieved stress, and delaying bowel movements for the sake of convenience.

If you don’t eat normally for a few days, your digestive tract may take time to catch up when you’re back on track, and you may not have a bowel movement right away. Don’t worry. Once your system captures the nutrients it missed, it will pass the excess.

Certain medications, including iron supplements, calcium channel blockers, narcotic painkillers, antacids that contain aluminum, and blood pressure medication can produce constipation by sapping moisture from your colon. Endocrine disorders such as diabetes or thyroid disease may also affect bowel habits.

Treatment for constipation

If you consult your doctor, he’ll ask how long you’ve been constipated, when you last moved your bowels, what your stool consistency was, and whether you’ve passed blood. Because eating habits are often to blame for constipation, adding fibre to your diet is a good first step. The average North American eats only 10 to 20 grams of fibre a day. You should aim for 25 to 35 grams daily. And always try to get fibre from foods first. Bran is an excellent source.

Adding mild natural laxatives to your diet may be all you need to correct the problem. Try prunes, sauerkraut, rhubarb, or green sprouts.

A suppository or gentle enema can offer immediate relief of constipation. If you’re shopping for an over-the-counter laxative, first try the mildest product you can find’and don’t make a habit of using it.

Your doctor may prescribe a stool softener. If constipation is a side effect of a medication you’re taking, he or she might suggest a change in dosage or an alternate drug.

Prevention of constipation

Bulk up with fibre. Fibre is the indigestible part of plant food. By helping the stool retain water, it adds bulk. This stimulates the natural contraction of the intestines and provokes a bowel movement. Insoluble fibre from whole grains can also accelerate the stool’s passage through the colon. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are excellent sources of fibre. So is bran. Switch to a bran cereal, or buy the unprocessed form (available in health food stores) and add a little to casseroles and baked goods. Also try substituting brown rice for white’it has three times the fibre. Boost your fibre intake gradually or you may experience gas, bloating, and abdominal pain.

Wash it down. Drink plenty of fluids’at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily’to soften the stool. If you make the mistake of increasing your fibre intake without drinking enough, the extra bulk may slow or block bowel function.

Get a move on. Regular exercise promotes proper bowel function. Studies have shown that exercise accelerates the stool’s transit time through the large intestine. Faster transit time means less time for the stool to lose water, resulting in stools that are easier to pass.

Fortify yourself. Until you change your eating habits to include more fibre, you might consider a fibre supplement, such as Metamucil. Take it with meals for best effect. These products can be helpful for constipation but, unlike the natural fibre you get from whole foods, they contain no nutrients.

Aim for consistency. Try to maintain a regular routine as much as possible. A sudden change in activity level or eating habits, as might occur during an illness or on a relaxing vacation, can result in constipation.