Not all people pass stool every day, this does not imply that something is wrong. Understanding bowel health is important as any change in bowel movement could indicate an underlying health problem. It is wrongly believed by many individuals that regular bowel movements imply that you pass stool every day. However, every person’s bowels are unique and what is considered normal for one may not be so for another.
A person can have movement of bowels anywhere from 1-3 times a day at the most or 3 times a week at the least and it can still be considered good or normal bowel movement as long as that is their usual pattern. Moreover, during a normal bowel movement you should pass formed, brown stools, neither too hard nor too loose. Too loose stools may indicate that you have diarrhoea and too dry and hard stools may indicate that you have constipation.
What is constipation?
Constipation is characterized by having difficulty in emptying the bowels, which is usually accompanied by hard and dry faeces. The movement of food waste or stool through the digestive tract is slowed during constipation. According to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a person is considered to have constipation when they produce less than 3 bowel movements a week or have dry, hard and small stools that are passed with difficulty.
Who is most likely to suffer from constipation?
There are several factors that may contribute to constipation. People who are most likely to suffer from constipation fall into one of the following categories:
Eat a poor diet: You eat a diet that is high in refined carbohydrates, processed foods, sugar, alcohol, synthetic additives and unhealthy fats.
Are under stress: The production of neurotransmitters and hormonal function is altered due to high amounts of stress, which influence inflammation, muscle tension, enzyme function and overall functioning of the digestive tract directly.
Are inactive: Inactivity may lead to constipation as exercise help in increasing flow of blood, in strengthening muscles of the digestive system and also controls stress.
Take certain medicines: You may suffer from constipation if you take certain medicines including antacids, antidepressants, anticholinergics, calcium or iron supplements, narcotics, anticonvulsants and diuretics.
Intestinal flora is imbalanced: Bowel function is regulated by healthy bacteria referred to as probiotics that is living in the GI or gastrointestinal tract. The reason why fibre is so important for a healthy gut is because “prebiotic” fibre present in plant foods helps in the thriving of probiotics bacteria.
Have thyroid or other hormonal problems: PMS, thyroid disorders, diabetes, eating disorders and menopause can all cause constipation. Other medical illnesses that may result in constipation are spinal injuries, Parkinson’s disease or neurological problems affecting the nerves in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Have deficiency of magnesium: Magnesium, an electrolyte helps in normal functioning of muscles. A deficiency of magnesium may lead to muscle tension and also aggravate symptoms of emotional stress.
Have poor bathroom habits: If you have poor bathroom habits, such as rushing while sitting in the toilet or sitting in an uncomfortable position on the toilet can lead to incomplete bowel movements.
Constipation can also result due to poor sleep, travelling and jet lag.
Fall in older age group: Sometimes the interest in food is lost in the elderly. It may be due to trouble in chewing, food tasting differently, or not having enough energy to cook food. This implies that they stop eating enough calories and fibre, thereby slowing their digestion in the process.
Symptoms of Constipation
The most common symptoms of constipation are the following:
- Passing stools less than normal number of times. This less than normal will be different in each individual. The key is to take a note of your usual habits. If suddenly you are passing stool less frequently than normally, then it is very likely that you are constipated.
- Difficulty or pain while passing stool. There may be pain in your abdomen and you need to push or strain to pass stool.
- Abdominal bloating and increased gas formation.
Facts about Constipation
- If you pass stool less than 3 times per week, you are considered to be having constipation.
- 2% of females and 1.5% of males report using laxatives every alternate day.
- Constipation occurs more frequently in females than males. According to some surveys, females suffer from constipation 2-3 as often as males.
- The risk of constipation increases in the elderly. The highest risk is for people above the age of 65 years.
- Only 34% of individuals with constipation visit a physician, while 35% of these use laxatives on their own.
- Adults should take approximately 22-34 grams of dietary fibre per day (depending on their sex and age) in order to prevent constipation.
- Living in rural areas, belonging to lower socioeconomic status, living in colder climates and low education are all risk factors for constipation.
Fitness and dietary changes to improve constipation
- Eat a diet rich in high fibre foods including raw vegetables and fruits, nuts, beans, pulses or legumes, apples, pears, sweet potatoes, chia and flax seeds, avocado, 100% unprocessed grains, green leafy vegetables etc.
- Include prunes and figs in your diet as they are also high in fibre and have a laxative effect.
- Drink warm liquids first thing after getting up in the morning.
- Increase your intake of water while you are increasing your fibre intake to aid with absorption and passing. Drinking 8-16 glasses of water every 2 hours is recommended while you are increasing your fibre intake. Ensure that you are drinking enough water throughout the day.
- Stay active and do regular exercise and physical activity.
- Manage and reduce stress by doing yoga or stretching, prayer, meditation, reading, exercise, using essential oils and warm baths.
Supplements to improve constipation
Psyllium Husk is rich in fibre and helps in forming stool. When mixed with water or any other liquid, it swells, thereby forming a bulk and stimulating contraction of intestines and speeding the passage of stools through the gut. According to a study published in the May 1998 issue of the journal Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, Psyllium is found to be superior to docusate sodium for softening stools by increasing the water contents of stools and has greater overall efficacy as a laxative in persons suffering from chronic idiopathic constipation.
It is one of the primary good bacteria present in the human gastrointestinal tract. Taking lactobacillus acidophilus tablets helps in repopulation of the body’s natural flora of good and friendly bacteria. It helps in preventing constipation. According to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, it was found that Probiotic beverage containing lactobacillus improves gastrointestinal symptoms in patients suffering from chronic constipation. Another study suggested that lactobacillus acidophilus improved symptoms of bloating in patients with functional bowel disorders.
Aloe Vera helps in the maintenance of intestinal function and promotion of healthy digestion. It helps in regulation of bowel movements and performance, regulates and reduces transit time leading to a healthy bowel. A study conducted at the Hebrew University of Jersusalem, Israel suggested that a laxative prepared by mixing celandin, aloevera and psyllium is effective in relieving symptoms of constipation.
It is also referred to as Pantothenic Acid and one of its health benefits is to maintain the health of the digestive system. It also reduces stress in the body.
Constipation is a common problem and is characterized by having difficulty in emptying the bowels, generally accompanied by hard stools or slower than normal movement of stool through the gut or producing less than normal bowel movements. There are multiple factors which can cause constipation ranging from poor diet to old age. Eating a diet rich in fibre and maintaining an active lifestyle can help prevent constipation. There are various supplements available such as Aloe Vera, psyllium husk etc., which you can take to relieve constipation.
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