What is constipation?
Constipation is a common disorder that is involves the passage of small, hard stools, resulting in infrequent or uncomfortable bowel movements. Some people describe it as a feeling that the rectum has not been completely emptied or having to strain during a bowel movement. It occurs when the colon absorbs too much water or if the colon's muscle contractions are slow, resulting in stool moving too slowly through the colon making stools hard and dry.
How many bowel movements you have each day varies from person to person, but less than 3 movements a week may indicate constipation.
Who gets constipated?
For some, constipation sometimes develops suddenly and lasts for a short time. For others, particularly those who are aging, constipation may begin gradually and last for an extended period of time.
Several factors, including dehydration, lack of non-caffeinated fluid intake, changes in diet (particularly, not ingesting enough soluble fibre), travel, lack of exercise, stress, pregnancy, enlargement of the rectum, impaired coordination of the pelvic and anal muscles, and certain medications may slow transit of stool.
Getting a proper diagnosis
To determine the cause of your constipation, your physician may ask you a series of questions and suggest changes. You can help your physician help you by being prepared with the following information:
- how often you have a bowel movement
- describe your stool (i.e. shape, hard or soft, etc.)
- if you are able to get to a washroom to have a bowel movement when you have the urge
- if you strain while having a bowel movement
- summarize your diet
- comment on your level of stress
- summarize how often you exercise
- if you experience pain or other symptoms associated with your constipation
If the cause of your constipation cannot be easily determined, your doctor may order tests:
- Blood tests
- Digital rectal exam which involves the physician lubricating a gloved index finger for a physical exam the anus
- Colonic transit rate test which shows how long a substance takes to move through the colon. You swallow a capsule with markers that are visible on an x-ray
- Barium x-ray which uses contrast dye to make the colon more visible and show any irregularities
Finding relief: diet
Eat more fibre. Foods that are high in soluble fibre include whole grains, bran, and fresh vegetables and fruits. These foods help move feces through the intestines by attracting water and adding bulk. Depending on your age, gender and lifestyle, adults should aim to consume between 25–40 grams of fibre per day.
Drink more liquid. Drinking 8-10 glasses a day of clear fluids is the recommendation for most people. Liquids can include water, juices, milk, soup or other beverages. Liquids with caffeine or alcohol increase urination and should not be included in this total.
Get – or stay – moving
Leading an active lifestyle is good for your overall health. This is true for digestive health as well. A sedentary lifestyle decreases bowel activity. Regular exercise, including walking, swimming, cycling, dancing or playing sports is recommended to help keep your bowels moving.
Develop a regular lifestyle and bowel routine
Irregular eating and sleeping patterns may lead to irregular bowel habits. If you can set aside the same time each day to relax and have a bowel movement, your body will become accustomed to this pattern over time.
Listen to your body
By responding to your body’s urges promptly, your bowel reflexes are more likely to become normal and regular. Familiarity with local facilities is important, so that when you feel the urge to pass stools, there is no delay. Remember to avoid straining
Use of laxatives
There are different types of laxatives. Many foods are considered to be natural laxatives. These include grapes, flax seed, licorice, dates & prunes.
Some herbal laxatives stimulate contractions of the colon. Other laxatives help the colon keep more water in the stool and prevent constipation. Regular use of certain stimulant laxatives may decrease tone in the bowel that may lead to poor bowel function. Regular use of laxatives should be approved by your doctor.
Diet, exercise, drinking water, reducing stress and paying attention to your body are the best ways to prevent constipation.
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