Almost everyone gets constipated at some time or another. Constipation is the passing of hard, dry stools, and it becomes difficult and painful to have a bowel movement.
The clinical definition of constipation is any two of the following symptoms for 12 weeks (not necessarily successive) over 12 months:
- straining during bowel movements
- lumpy or hard stools
- sensation of incomplete bowel movement
- sensation of blockage in the anal rectal region
- less than three bowel movements per week
Why does it happen?
Common causes of constipation are:
- A diet low in dietary fibre
- Inadequate fluid intake – liquids like water help bulk stools, making bowel movements softer and easier to pass
- Changes in life or routine such as pregnancy, older age, and travel. During pregnancy, hormonal changes and the heavy uterus pressing on the intestine can cause constipation. As we age our metabolism slows down reducing bowel regularity. Routine keeps us moving – when we are travelling our diet and routine usually change and so do our intestines
- Laxative or enema abuse –.long-term use of laxatives may lead to dependence
- Lack of exercise
- Certain medications can cause constipation such as diuretics, some pain killers and certain iron supplements
- Irritable bowel syndrome – alternating between constipation and diarrhoea
- Poor liver function
- Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement can lead to constipation
- Diseases such as stroke, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease can cause constipation, these disorders can slow the movement of stools through the colon
Other disorders of the colon or rectum eg intestinal obstruction, scar tissue (adhesions) and diverticulosis
What natural therapies can help?
Psyllium husks – 10-20g daily has been shown to help ease constipation.
Aloe latex works well as a laxative and the effect should be seen 10 -12 hours after taking aloe latex. Liquorice also exerts a laxative effect.
Probiotics provide a protective barrier in your digestive system, thus helping prevent bad bacteria residing in these areas. Studies show that Lactobacillus plantarum and Bifidobacterium infantis improve symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating and stool frequency or constipation.
Milk thistle, dandelion root and globe artichoke stimulates bile flow, aid digestion and support the liver.
Iodine – lack of iodine can cause hypothyroidism, which is characterised by a slow metabolism – constipation.
Did you know?
- Treatment often depends on the cause, severity and duration. Record everything about your bowel habits such as duration of symptoms, frequency of bowel movements, location (home, work, public toilet etc) consistency of stools, presence of blood or mucus in the stool, eating habits, medication and exercise. This can help your healthcare practitioner with an appropriate treatment.
- Fibre is the part of foods that the body cannot digest. It is referred to as soluble or insoluble. The bulk and soft texture of fibre helps prevent hard, dry stools that are difficult to pass. Both types of fibre are important in the diet and provide benefits to the digestive system by helping to maintain regularity. Soluble fibre has some additional benefits to heart and gastrointestinal health.
- Increase fibre in the diet slowly to give the gastrointestinal tract time to adapt and minimise gas, bloating or cramping.
- Adults should aim to consume 25 to 35grams daily of dietary fibre. For children over age of 2, the recommended intake is the child’s age + 5g.
- High-fibre foods include legumes, whole grain cereals, fruits, and vegetables.
- Psyllium husks should be taken at least three hours away from any medications to avoid the psyllium husks binding onto the medication and reducing the efficacy of the medication.
- Limit foods that don’t contain much fibre such as ice cream, meat, and processed foods.
- As you increase your fibre intake drink more fluids. Aim for about two litres of water daily. Alcohol and liquids that contain caffeine such as coffee, have a dehydrating effect, so should be avoided.
- Get up and go for a walk – lack of exercise can lead to constipation. It is very common for people to get constipated when they cannot exercise due to illness.
- Only resort to laxatives when it is absolutely necessary. Your bowels can slacken off due to laxative abuse!
- Bowel movements should be easy. Straining to have a bowel movement can lead to haemorrhoids or anal fissures (tears in the skin around the anus)
- Occasionally, constipation may be symptomatic of an underlying illness so be sure to see your healthcare practitioner if your bowel troubles are persistent or alternate between constipation and diarrhoea.