Constipation: It’s not exactly a topic most of us like to talk about, but it’s something almost all of us experience on occasion. According to the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons, a whopping 80% of people suffer from constipation at some point in their lives. For most of us, constipation is only temporary, but some of us develop chronic constipation.
When you’re constipated you have hard, dry stool, difficulty eliminating a bowel movement or infrequent bowel movements – fewer than three a week. You also often have pain, cramping and bloating.
What causes constipation?
There are actually a handful of different reasons why you might experience constipation. Some of the most common causes are:
- Not eating enough fiber or drinking enough water.
- Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement.
- Lack of exercise: Exercise can help to keep your bowels moving. People who exercise more are less likely than those who don’t to be constipated.
- Aging: As we get older, intestinal activity and muscle tone can slow down, leading to constipation.
- Medications: Constipation is a side effect of many prescription and over-the-counter medications, including NSAIDs, narcotics, antacids containing aluminum and calcium carbonate, antidepressants, sedatives, iron supplements, diuretics and calcium-channel blockers. If you’re taking one of these medications, talk to your doctor about simple ways to relieve your constipation while staying on the medications you need.
- Overuse of laxatives: If you use laxatives for long periods of time, your body gets used to the help. Once you stop using laxatives after weeks to months of using them, you may become constipated.
- Traveling: Changes in diet and normal daily routine can lead to constipation.
- Pregnancy: Hormonal changes and the weight of the uterus pushing on the intestine can cause constipation.
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Certain diseases can also cause a person to develop chronic constipation. Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, hypothyroidism, diabetes, kidney disease and bowel cancer and are all good examples. A person can also develop chronic constipation after a spinal chord injury or stroke.
How can you treat constipation?
Since constipation is a symptom of an underlying issue, figuring out what’s causing your constipation can help you choose the best treatment option. Your doctor can help pinpoint a cause by taking your medical history, performing a physical exam and doing diagnostic tests like a blood test or colonoscopy if necessary.
Most people with mild constipation can get relief simply by making a few lifestyle changes:
- Exercising for about 30 minutes a day stimulates the intestines and helps you maintain regular bowel movements.
- Eating a fiber-rich diet. Fiber helps soften stool. Aim to get 25 g of fiber a day from fruits (prunes and apples in particular), vegetables, whole grains and beans.
- Getting plenty of fluids. Water normally helps to soften your stools. When you don’t drink enough water, there isn’t enough left over at the end of digestion to keep your stools soft and you end up constipated. Make sure that you drink plenty of water and eat water-rich foods like watermelon, tomatoes and cucumber.
If you’re still experiencing constipation after making lifestyle changes, your doctor may recommend one of the following medications:
- Laxatives: Laxatives come in various different forms; stimulants, lubricants, stool softeners, bulk-formers and osmotics. All laxatives work virtually the same way, by softening your stool and helping it pass through your colon. Just don’t overdo it on the laxatives. They can actually cause constipation if you take them too often for too long. They should be a temporary measure to get you back to normal.
- Enemas: These medications are inserted into the rectum to help flush out stool. Some enemas only contain water, while others include phosphates or mineral oils. An enema is considered a quick fix for constipation because it works within minutes.
Fortunately, lifestyle changes coupled with short-term laxative us can fix most cases of constipation.