Tips for preventing constipation
Though it's not a popular topic to discuss, constipation is a condition that most of us deal with at times. More common for the elderly, pregnant women (or those who have just given birth) and following surgery, constipation is a frequent problem for 4 million Americans.
Many people consider "once a day" to be the normal bowel movement pattern. In reality, "normal" regularity varies greatly; for some, several times a day is common while others "go" only every other day or so. In fact, the average time it takes food to travel through us can vary from around 16 hours in children to 24 - 65 hours in adults, depending on the individual!
What causes constipation?
Constipation occurs when the colon (large intestine) absorbs too much liquid from foods as they move toward the rectum (which is often the case when food moves too slowly). This excess absorption of liquid causes the waste product to become hard, dry and difficult to move. A second cause of constipation can be if the colon's peristaltic action (pulsating contractions) becomes too sluggish. If you're having three or fewer bowel movements per week, having to strain, or your stools are dry or hard, consider the following lifestyle changes which may help "get things moving" more smoothly and regularly.
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Tips for preventing constipation
- Include at least 25-35 grams of fiber in your daily diet, since fiber draws more water into the stools and makes them softer. In fact, poor diet is the leading cause of constipation. Dietary fiber can come in the form of high-fiber foods like whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables or fiber supplement pills or powders. Not sure if you are consuming enough fiber? Check this list of high-fiber foods but try to add additional fiber to your diet gradually so as to minimize discomfort as your body adjusts. As much as possible, avoid fast foods or convenience meals which are typically rich in cheese, ice cream, eggs, meats and other high-fat, low-fiber, highly refined, processed foods.
- Drink plenty of hydrating fluids: while coffee, carbonated drinks and alcoholic beverages contribute to body dehydration, which can lead to constipation, liquids such as teas, fruit or vegetable juices, clear soups and plain water prevent dehydration and may help to soften and bulk-up the stool, making it easier to pass. How much is enough? That depends on the weather, your activity level, diet, illness (presence of vomiting and diarrhea), general health (diabetes, for example can cause excessive urination) and age. And drinking small amounts of liquids, but more frequently can improve hydration better guzzling larger amounts less often. Drinking milk is a common cause of constipation.
- Go to the bathroom when you feel the urge: resisting the urge to go #2, perhaps because you are too busy, away from home, stressed, or it's just not convenient, can suppress the signals that tell your body that you need to "go." This can lead to constipation. For many people, bathroom calls often come after breakfast and dinner.
- Increase your activity level: A sedentary lifestyle is believed to be one reason why the elderly are especially susceptible to constipation. Exercising at least 20-30 minutes per day helps keep your digestive system and organs fit and working optimally.
- Don't become over dependent on laxatives: While occasional, limited use of laxatives may be necessary to relieve constipation, abuse or overuse of laxatives can result in the body becoming habituated (adapting), meaning that we must use more and more laxatives to get desired results.
- Try to establish a routine in terms of diet and activity level: Disrupting our daily routine, such as when we travel, often leads to constipation.
- Seek medical advice if you have one of a long list of conditions frequently associated with constipation: This includes irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, or have suffered from a stroke, or have colon, rectum, or intestinal function problems.
- Be mindful of medications and nutritional supplements and how they may be affecting you: This includes pain medications, antacids, Parkinson's medications, antidepressants, iron supplements, blood pressure medications and more.
What to do if you're constipation
While the above lifestyle changes should help you avoid constipation, there may still be times when action is needed NOW. In those cases, fecal impaction can often be loosened by using one or more forms of laxative.
- Stool softeners: oral medication that softens stool by drawing in additional water and fats. Safe but may not work for much more than mild cases of constipation. Allow 1-3 days to work.
- Lubricant laxatives: common example includes drinking mineral oil. Allow 6-8 hours to work.
- Saline laxatives: work by drawing more water into the stool. Examples include Milk of Magnesia (generally safe for regular use) and glycerin suppositories and fleet enemas (which should not be used on a regular basis if they include stimulant ingredients). Natural approaches include tap water enema and even a natural, milk and molasses enema.
- Stimulant laxatives: most aggressive form of laxative and must not be used regularly to avoid developing a dependency on them. Oral forms work in approximately 7 hours. Suppository forms can work within 30 minutes.
If a bowel movement is still not possible after 4 days, consult with your doctor since a potentially serious, underlying condition may be a cause.
For more information on costipation remedies and prevention, visit: http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/constipation/