Bowel habits are not something most of us discuss very often. That makes it very difficult to know what is normal, how common problems are and what to do about the problems if and when they do occur. Constipation is one of the most common bowel problems, it gets more common as we get older, but affects many young people and children too.
Symptoms of constipation
If you strain to have a bowel motion, pass hard small stools, go for days without a bowel motion or feel you have not completely emptied your bowel after going, you are probably constipated. You may also feel bloated, heavy, windy and even slightly nauseous, as a blockage in the colon will also affect the functioning of the gut further up the GI tract.
It’s essential that you don’t take constipation lightly as the long-term consequences can be serious. Continually straining to go to the loo weakens the pelvic floor muscles, worsening the problem and making faecal and bladder incontinence more likely. The pressure in the colon may also lead to diverculitis or haemorrhoids.
What causes constipation?
Too much water being absorbed from the stools as they pass through the colon causes constipation. As the stools become dryer they are harder to move along the colon and can result in a blockage. The factors involved include:
- Insufficient fibre in the diet, meaning there is less ‘food’ present by the time the intestinal contents reach the colon.
- Not enough water, so that the intestinal contents are dryer. As you eat more fibre you also need to drink more water.
- Some supplements (eg iron) and medications.
- Nerve damage caused by stroke, surgery and some diseases such as Parkinson’s.
- Excessive use of laxatives.
- A slow gut transit time – this can be due to the above factors, but may also be an individual problem.
What can you do to avoid constipation?
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the likelihood of getting constipated, and treat any existing constipation:
- Consume a high fibre diet including all three types of fibre insoluble, soluble and resistant starch. This means eating wholegrains, legumes, whole fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. The Goodness Superfoods range of products are made from the CSIRO BARLEYmax™ supergrain, which is especially fibre rich. Consuming at least one serve a day may help. Your goal is to reach 25-30g of fibre a day.
- Drink plenty water (or other fluids) and spread them out over the course of the day. Think about having a cup of water every hour on average and drink more when exercising or when it’s hot.
- Build at least 30 minutes of activity into every day. This can be formal exercise, or it may just be walking – the point is to move as movement of your body also encourages your bowels to move.
- Go to the toilet as soon as you can when you feel the urge. Holding on for too long can lead to constipation.
- If due to iron tablets, try taking the tablet only every other day and see a dietitian to try to improve your dietary iron intake.
- If due to medications talk to your doctor. You may be able to change medications, or may need a laxative.
- You can also consider using a fibre supplement or natural laxative.
Finally see your doctor if constipation persists.