Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal concerns in America, and it seems to be more common as we age. Although 3 or more bowel movements per week is technically considered normal, many feel better with daily movements. Even if the frequency is adequate, complaints of hard texture, straining, and a feeling of incomplete evacuation are also common. Two unique constipation types are slow transit and pelvic floor dyssyngergy (or outlet delay). In the slow transit type, nerves of the bowels are less active, resulting in infrequent movements. The pelvic floor type relates to the way the lower part of the colon coordinates emptying; straining may be experienced even with soft stools. However, most people with constipation have neither of these.
Nutrition has a huge impact on bowel movements; a diet high in animal products and low in fiber is a common cause of constipation. Low thyroid function can also be a culprit. Certain prescription and over-the-counter drugs can also cause constipation. Hemorrhoids, often worsened by constipation, can also make evacuation painful. For those with occasional garden-variety constipation, here are some simple tips to consider:
- Follow nature’s call. Over time, suppressing the urge to have a bowel movement can dull the body’s signals that it is time to evacuate. The bowels are often more active after a meal or a warm drink, including coffee. Schedule your day accordingly, and set aside uninterrupted toilet time after breakfast and dinner.
- Fill up on fiber. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains have the type of fiber that gets things moving. Top oatmeal with warmed fiber-rich prunes or sauteed apple. Stock up on beans, a great fiber source; soak dried beans overnight and discard the liquid to improve digestibility. Snack on a handful of nuts. Meat and poultry may have stringy fibers, but these fibers do not improve constipation. On nutrition labels, look for products high in dietary fiber. Suddenly increasing fiber may cause gas, so gradually work up to higher levels. Take the fiber quiz to see if you’re getting enough in your diet.
- Drink up. In addition to other beverages, drink a few glasses of water daily. Instead of icy drinks, go for something warm, especially in the morning. The bowels need moisture to function well.
- Get moving. Regular exercise can promote bowel regularity. Useful yoga poses include knee-to-chest and sun salutations.
- Know when to seek help. Sometimes a change in bowel habits can signify disease, so talk to your personal healthcare team if you experience a significant change, such as blood, stool color change, pain, weight loss, fever, weakness, or other symptoms.
While there are many laxatives on the market, my preference is to focus on diet first. Introducing more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will pack a host of nutritional benefits that laxatives do not. As well, some, but not all, laxatives can be habit-forming. Read more constipation tips from the American Gastroenterology Association.
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