An introduction to constipation
Constipation occurs when food moves too slowly through the digestive tract and as a consequence, stools become more solid and increasingly difficult to pass. It is one of the most common conditions affecting the digestive system.
In the developed world, up to 25% of people are said to suffer constipation symptoms, probably because of a more refined diet.
Most of us will know about or have experienced the symptom. However, defining constipation is not always easy. How often do you really need to move your bowels?
How do I know if I am constipated?
Some people open their bowels 2 to 3 times a day, others no more than once per week.
Doctors define constipation as:
- When you open your bowels less than three times a week
- Having to strain excessively when you do
- Or if you have hard pellet-like stools, sometimes described as rabbit droppings.
Naturopaths however believe that you need to open your bowels at least once a day and that if you do so less frequently it means you are constipated.
Women tend to be more constipated than men and the condition is more frequently encountered with increasing age.
Read more about what constipation is.
Symptoms of constipation
So, if there is no agreement on how often we need to open our bowels, how would one know if one is constipated? Again, this is a not always an easy question to answer.
Doctors look for other symptoms, known as the Rome III criteria, to define constipation. Apart from those already mentioned, symptoms include:
- a feeling that your bowel is obstructed at its outlet or
- a feeling that you have not finished defecating.
Other symptoms which may indicate that you are constipated include experiencing flatulence or a bloated feeling due to excessive wind in your tummy.
Causes of constipation
For the majority of people experiencing constipation, no specific cause can be found. However, a number of factors are known to contribute to constipation and for each individual, it is likely that a number of these will be involved.
The most common factors leading to constipation are:
- Dietary - Not eating enough fruit, vegetables, wholegrain, pulses or other food groups rich in fibre
- A change in personal circumstances, lifestyle or eating habits
- Stress at work or at home
- Other mood disorders such as anxiety, feeling low in mood or depression
- Certain medicines, most commonly pain-killing medicines based on codeine or morphine.
Read more about medicines causing constipation.
What can I do?
If you suffer from constipation, first, take a look at your diet. Make sure that you have a daily intake of fruit, vegetables (aim for more than 5 per day) and other foods with high fibre content such as bran.
Certain fruit such as prunes (either whole or in juice), plums and kiwi fruit can be specifically helpful for some people suffering constipation.
In addition, regular exercise improves the way the digestive system works, so a daily 15 or 30 minute walk each day will do both your heart and bowels some good.
Make sure that you give yourself plenty of time in the toilet. Banish all thoughts of embarrassment, relax and give your bowel a chance to do its work. It is also helpful to do this at a fixed time each day – 15 minutes after breakfast works well for many.
Read more detailed information on lifestyle tips and advice to help constipation.
How can herbal remedies help?
If a change of diet and lifestyle are not sufficient to sort out your constipation, you might want to turn to laxatives as a temporary solution to kick-start the process, and then rely on your diet to prevent further episodes.
Herbal laxatives are amongst man’s oldest medicines and work in two ways:
- Bulking agents. A good example is linseed which swells when in contact with water. This increases the bulk and volume of your stools, making them softer and easier to pass
- Stimulating agents. This type of medicine stimulates the muscles in your bowel to contract, pushing stools further towards the exit.
What should I look out for?
See your doctor if:
- You notice any unexplained bleeding from your back passage
- You have unexplained or unusually severe tummy pain
- Your constipation develops suddenly and / or is accompanied by vomiting.
Lastly, if you do use laxatives to treat constipation, make sure that you do not become dependent on them. Using laxatives too frequently can make your bowel ‘lazy’.