We’ve all experienced it at some time or other – the bloated abdomen, the headaches, the fatigue, the discomfort… that scourge of the modern lifestyle – constipation.

Constipation Defined

First off, constipation is not a disease. It’s a symptom of a poorly functioning digestive system. Bowel movements will be infrequent, incomplete, or difficult to pass. In some cases of constipation the stools will dry and hard, in other cases the person may not form stools properly at all.

Medically, you will be considered to be constipated if you have a bowel movement less than three times a week. In practice, though, people generally consider themselves constipated if there is a significant reduction or impairment of their usual (healthy) bowel movement frequency. As healthy bowel movements can vary from three times a day to three times a week, depending on the person, the threshold for constipation is better thought of as a range, rather than a single point.

Symptoms of Constipation

For those who have experienced it, the main symptom is glaringly obvious – you just can’t go to the toilet! In addition to this, though, there are a range of other symptoms that cause distress and discomfort. These include:

  • Lack of energy
  • Bad breath
  • Furred tongue
  • Headaches
  • Abdominal bloating/excess gas
  • Bad skin
  • Dark circles under the eyes
  • Varicose vein pain
  • Depression

Causes and Preventative Measures

The most prevalent causes of constipation are poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle.

Diet

As food passes through the colon, nutrients and water are extracted from it and a stool is formed. If the stool has too little bulk, or is too dry, the body will find it difficult to move it along the colon and eliminate it. Bingo – constipation.

In this situation it should be fairly obvious that changes in what we put into our bodies will change what (and how often) comes out.

Water

Increasing the amount of water we drink will reduce the risk of the stool becoming too dry. Try for six to eight glasses a day.

Fibre

To a large degree a stool’s bulk will be dependent on the amount of fibre consumed. More fibre equals more bulk; the bulkier the stool, the easier it is for the body to move it along the colon.

Care should be taken, though, to choose the right sort of fibre. Some people may find that increases in the intake of non-soluble grain fibre (wheat bran, rice bran etc.) will irritate the colon, leading to even more discomfort. Non-soluble fibre, on the other hand, provides bulk without irritation and can be found in psyllium husks and oat bran.

And of course, most fruits and vegetables are good sources of fibre. Particularly effective are green leafy vegetables, broccoli, carrots and cabbage (though some people may find cabbage a little too windy!).

Foods to Avoid

Foods which have been linked with constipation include sugar, refined flour (and anything made from it), refined foods in general, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and too much meat. The prolonged use of coffee and alcohol in large quantities should also be avoided. The diuretic effect of both can contribute to stools that are too dry.

Exercise

Lack of exercise is another contributing factor. By toning the muscles of the abdomen and engaging the body in movement, exercise supports peristalsis – the rippling motion of the digestive tract necessary for the elimination of waste. Stronger abdominal muscles are also better able to push at the appropriate moment.

Relax! You don’t have to go to the gym, walking is a great exercise for the prevention of constipation.

Regularity

Eating at irregular times, attempting to open your bowels at different times of the day, or ignoring the urge to go when it does come (if you’re busy at work, for instance) can all also lead to constipation. Being regular and consistent in your habits will help the body establish a healthy rhythm.

Laxatives

Unhappily, laxatives, the very things we take for some relief, can compound the problem of constipation if overused. The bowel may become dependent on them and require increasing amounts of the laxative to function effectively.

Medical Conditions

Beyond the realm of diet and exercise (and the scope of this article), there are many medical conditions with which constipation is associated. For instance:

  • Intestinal obstruction
  • Abdominal hernia
  • Poorly functioning thyroid gland
  • Lead poisoning
  • Intestinal tumors
  • Lupus
  • Twisting of the intestine (volvulus)

Constipation due to these causes should be addressed by your doctor.

Medication

Likewise, constipation due to medications such as pain killers, iron supplements, antidepressants, anticonvulsants and antispasmodics should be discussed with a physician before any changes are made to your dose.

When You’re Suffering

The following foods are traditionally recommended when you just can’t go.

  • Pears
  • Guava
  • Grapes
  • Oranges
  • Figs
  • Spinach juice
  • Carrot and celery juice
  • Prunes
  • Dried fruit in general

You could also try the juice of half a lime and half a teaspoon of salt in a cup of hot water. Or, a little more esoterically, keep some water in a copper container overnight and drink a glass first thing in the morning… Who knows, it might work.

Make Some Changes

Constipation is a condition that can markedly impair the quality of life. But freeing yourself from its daily discomfort (and those fruitless sessions in the bathroom) may be as simple as moving to a diet rich in vegetables, fruit and unrefined foods, increasing your water intake and doing a little exercise. Good luck!

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