Constipation occurs when your bowel movements reduce to three or less per week. It is a common digestive problem that causes hard, dry bowel movements and abdominal discomfort.
In order to have bowel movements, your colon needs to absorb water from the food you eat as it passes through your digestive system to create stool. Your colon then uses its muscles to move the stool towards the rectum resulting in a bowel movement. However, if there isn’t enough water absorbed, the process is less effective. This results in the waste becoming harder, or causes it to remain in the colon longer. The longer the stool remains in your colon, the more difficult it becomes to pass the stool. This leads to constipation.
What causes constipation?
There are several things that can contribute to constipation, but the most common cause tends to be poor diet. You need dietary fibre and water to help your colon work well. Fibre and water help keep stool soft, so it can be moved down the rectum more easily. When you eat more fibre, it helps keep stools soft and more substantial, so they are easier to pass. However, there are other factors at play, including:
- Stress: Stress can impact your digestive system. This includes things like a change to your routine or being too busy to eat properly.
- Delaying Bowel Movements: When you feel the urge to go to the bathroom, but ignore it, you interfere with your body’s natural timing. As a result, you can set your bowel movement schedule off which causes the stool to sit in the colon longer. Stools become hard and shrink, leading to constipation.
- Too Much Dairy: For some people eating too many dairy products such as milk and cheese can cause constipation.
- Dehydration: Not drinking enough water causes constipation as water is needed to help loosen stools and keep them soft. Drinking eight glasses a day is highly recommended.
- Lifestyle: Not getting enough exercise and having a sporadic routine that interferes with meals are two examples of lifestyle habits that can increase the risk for constipation. Travel can also cause constipation.
- Medications: Many medications including over-the-counter drugs like antacids and pain medications as well as prescribed medications such as diuretics, and some treatments for Parkinson’s disease can cause constipation. Overuse of laxatives can also cause constipation.
- Being Over 60: Your system can slow down as you age, which can lead to constipation.
- Underlying Health Issues: The following health conditions can cause constipation:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Hormonal problems
- Underactive thyroid gland
All of these factors can increase the risk for constipation.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
Since all of us have our own bowel movement “schedule” the number of bowel movements for one person could be normal, while for another it could indicate they are constipated. As a result, the general sign of constipation of going less than three times a week is not always a symptom of constipation. But generally reduced frequency of bowel movements in hand with any of the following symptoms indicate you are constipated:
- Having hard, dry, or lumpy stools
- Straining to pass stools
- Painful bowel movements
- Feeling your bowels are still full after a bowel movement
When to See a Doctor for Constipation
If your symptoms continue for more than two weeks or include the following, you should speak to your doctor:
- Bleeding from the rectum
- Bloody stool
- Ongoing or severe abdominal pain
- Lower back pain
- Increasing gassiness
- Unable to pass wind
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Unexplained weight loss
- Change to your bowel movements
Your doctor will consider your symptoms and rule out serious conditions.
How to Relieve Constipation
There are several ways to help relieve constipation including:
- Add more fibre to your diet, such as nuts, prunes, raw apples and pears with the skin, greens such as spinach, beans, whole grains and seeds
- Get more exercise, such as taking a brisk walk every day
- Drink more water to hydrate your body
- Reduce consumption of caffeine and alcohol
- Cut out dairy
- Try using a footstool when you take a bowel movement to help ease the discomfort
- Use an over the counter stool softener or suppository
If you do not experience relief using these techniques, speak to your doctor.
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