The Ultimate Guide to Constipation: Let’s Keep Things Moving!
Constipation is an uncomfortable condition in the digestive system which makes it extremely difficult to have a bowel movement. This can cause pain and discomfort. It can be due to abdominal surgery, medication, or changes in a person’s diet. It can also show up at times for no apparent reason.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Regular bowel movements keep order in the digestive system by keeping everything moving — literally. Symptoms of constipation include cramps, severe stomach pain, nausea, headaches, flatulence, loss of appetite, fever, back pressure and more. Left untreated, constipation can also cause more uncomfortable ailments like hemorrhoids or impaction.
Diagnosis of constipation is relatively straightforward and generally only requires a brief visit with a healthcare professional. They will review your medical history, and ask questions such as whether you have begun taking any new medications, changed your diet in any way, or have been experiencing any other symptoms which may be indicative of a hormonal shift or other underlying ailment. After that, recommendations will be made to relieve your constipation.
Treatment of Constipation
Depending on the cause of your illness, your doctor may recommend increasing your dietary fiber and water intake. He may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives or, if all else has failed, may prescribe a medication like Amitiza, Linzess or Miralax.
Luckily, most of the time it does not have to come to this. The best defense against constipation, like so many other health-related issues, is to be proactive about your well-being.
Avoiding Constipation in the First Place (and Treating Minor Bouts)
There are plenty of ways to stave off this uncomfortable situation, and ways to treat acute events which may crop up from time to time. Most of the time, the cause of the discomfort and inability to empty the bowels is directly related to what you put in your body. Making wise choices and shifting focus to healthier options can go a long way in preventing the discomfort of being backed up – as well as a host of other symptoms.
Water — H2O is as essential to our lives as the air we breathe. Without it, we cannot survive. We need it for every system in our body to function properly, and it is vital for our digestive system. The standard recommendation is eight 8-ounce glasses per day, but keep in mind this advice is relative. You will need more if you drink caffeine, have a salty diet, exercise, drink alcohol or spend your days in the heat as these all have dehydrating effects on your body.
Fiber — Fiber is another vital component for a healthy digestive tract. Many OTC remedies for constipation, like Citrucel, contain fiber as their primary ingredient to help get things moving in the intestines. These can be helpful when there is not enough fiber in your diet. You can get fiber from natural sources, too, like bran, fruits, vegetables and psyllium. Be aware though, not all fiber is the same. There are two types:
Soluble fiber is that which slows digestion and aids the body in picking up nutrients from food. Foods rich in soluble fiber include oats, oat bran, and rice bran, dried beans and barley, fruits such as citrus, apples and strawberries, and vegetables like peas and potatoes.
Insoluble fiber adds mass to the stool which helps it move quickly through your digestive tract. Foods rich in insoluble fiber include many fruits and vegetables, seeds, cereals, wheat bran and whole grains.
For acute bouts of constipation, the best fiber-rich foods to eat are whole-grain bread, pasta and cereal. Wheat bran is an excellent all-natural remedy.
Fruits and Vegetables — We all know we should be getting our fill of natural foods, with little to no processing. Unfortunately, this is not the case in many of our lives. Convenience food has taken us from the healthful diets of our ancestors and placed us on a collision course of illness and disease. In order to stay as healthy as possible, we need to get back to our roots. Aim to eat at least 4.5 cups of fresh fruits and vegetables each day including apples, oranges, bananas, berries, pears, broccoli, carrots, spinach and other greens.
Figs — Figs are one fruit worth mentioning all on their own; they are just that good at relieving constipation. They have stood the test of time at providing great relief for the ailment. Soak them overnight in water to have them ready for breakfast in the morning. You can add them in with your whole-grain cereal for a double-whammy effect on your bowels, or blend them up with some milk and fresh juice for a delicious, fiber-rich smoothie. Add some prune juice to the mix and your troubles should be over in no time at all.
Citrus Juices — Citrus juices like orange and grapefruit are another excellent addition to your morning routine to keep your bowels in good working order. Your bowels are in stasis at rest, so drinking citrus-based drinks in the morning can stimulate peristaltic action and help promote a bowel movement.
Fresh lemon juice is your best bet for many reasons. It promotes cleansing throughout the entire body and is filled with bioflavonoids, potassium, and Vitamin C, among other vitamins and minerals. The citric acid in it helps the liver make enzymes to detoxify the blood, combines with calcium which aids in breaking up pancreatic and kidney stones, helps keep arteries clear of plaque, and aids in stopping calcium deposit buildups throughout the entire body. When these other symptoms are not at their peak, the digestive system falters as well, which can cause constipation.
To utilize this miracle of nature, squeeze the juice of one lemon into a glass of warm water and drink every morning as soon as you wake up. Do not eat or drink anything else for half an hour. You may make it more palatable by adding organic honey or a shake of cinnamon.
Cayenne — Cayenne is another wonder which is excellent for many conditions.
“One of the most effective stimulants, mostly, cayenne targets the digestive and the circulatory system. Cayenne regulates blood pressure, strengthens the pulse, feeds the heart, lowers cholesterol, and thins the blood. It cleanses the circulatory system, heals ulcers, stops hemorrhaging, speeds healing of wounds, rebuilds damaged tissue, eases congestion, aids digestion, regulates elimination, relieves arthritis and rheumatism, prevents the spread of infection and numbs pain.” – Dick Quinn, Left for Dead
Cayenne is available in capsule form from health food stores, and cayenne pepper can be added to your food as well. Stay away from the seeds, however. Pregnant or lactating women should not use cayenne supplements.
Yogurt — Yogurt is beneficial in keeping the intestines healthy through probiotics, i.e. healthy bacteria such as acidophilus. These bacteria help keep the unhealthy bacterias like yeast in check. Be sure to ingest yogurt that is unhindered by added sugars and chemicals, and, as with everything, check the label.
Castor Oil — Castor oil is another age-old remedy your grandmother and her mother before her most likely used to self-treat constipation in themselves and their families. Your doctor may even recommend it to this day. It works by stimulating the intestines to get the stool moving and is often used prior to surgery as a way to clean out the intestinal tract. It is taken by mouth and is not very tasty, but can be taken with juice. Follow the directions on the package or check with your primary care doctor if you are unsure of the dosage.
Exercise — Yes, I know you are probably tired of hearing that you need to get up and get moving. But again it must be stated: physical fitness is another vital component of being healthy. Regular movement keeps everything in the body going – from your blood vessels to your colon. This does not mean that you need to be running a 5K marathon every other week. Simply going for a brisk half-hour walk a day can do wonders for your body.
Listen to Your Body
Your body is a well-oiled machine, and as such, reacts just as a machine does. Put quality materials in, and it will run smooth for a long time. Put junk in and you will pay the price. Your body will also let you know when something is wrong or when it needs something. Pay attention to these queues, no matter how subtle they are.
Don’t ignore the urge to go. When you have the sense that you need to have a bowel movement, go. You may have a small window and ignoring that feeling can cause a backup.
Go to the bathroom every morning. Your grandmother had wisdom with her morning constitutional and you would be wise to heed it. Your colon is most active in the morning because it has just come off its rest cycle in the same way you have. Strive to have a bowel movement around the same time every day after waking up.
Go after every meal. That fullness you get after eating is caused by food, as well as peristalsis. Try to go after every meal when your colon is ready.
Talk with your healthcare professional. Many times we put off going to the doctor because we are either in denial of our symptoms, are too busy or just hate going to the doctor’s office. Our body gives us hints when something is not quite right. Do not ignore these. You may put something off until it is too late. If you are experiencing unusual symptoms, make an appointment. And keep it!
Steer Clear of These to Avoid Constipation
Stress wreaks havoc on our lives in so many ways, and it is so hard to avoid. It seems we are always being pulled in all different directions. There are deadlines at work, tests to study for, kids to worry about, bills we can’t pay, things breaking down in the car and house — the list goes on and on. This pressure builds up, and we are notorious for not taking time out to care for ourselves and unwind. It is essential to do so, however. Stress causes many ailments and constipation is just one of them. Take time to unplug (no pun intended) and relax. Effective daily relaxation techniques like low-impact Pilates, yoga, guided imagery and meditation can work wonders.
While many foods can help relieve constipation, there are many others which can cause it:
Dairy products — Dairy products like milk and cheese are devoid of fiber which can make them hard to pass through the body thereby causing constipation. Lactose tolerance is also an issue. Try lactose-free products or at the very least, low-fat versions of your favorites.
Fluids — Yes, water is very beneficial and necessary for healthy intestinal flow. But caffeinated drinks like coffee and tea, unhealthy sugar and chemical-laden sodas and processed juices, and alcohol are all bad. Steer clear of these if you suffer from chronic bouts.
Meat — Not all meat is bad, and you do not have to remove all of it unless directed by your doctor. However, meat takes up room in your gut. Replace it with fiber-rich fruits and vegetables to keep things moving.
Processed foods — Processed foods are often high in sugar and salt content and low in fiber and nutrition all-around. Try eliminating packaged meals, frozen dinners and the like and see how well your body reacts.
Refined carbohydrates — Much like processed foods, your body does not like refined carbohydrates. Pre-packaged chips and cakes, as well as white sugars and flours, often spike blood sugar as well as stopping up your system with gunk. They also lack nutrition. Get your sugar fix from fruit.
Medications, whether over-the-counter or physician-prescribed, can often cause discomfort in the body from constipation. Sleeping pills, iron and even laxatives can contribute. One particular culprit is worth mentioning all on its own, however: opioids.
When a person experiences pain, it goes without saying that they want relief as soon as possible. Acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen are common OTC drugs that many turn to. These can often have unwanted side effects, especially in people over the age of 70 or those suffering other conditions. Moreover, sometimes these types of analgesics are not effective in diminishing the pain. The next step up is opioids.
Opium, from the poppyseed plant, has been used for centuries for its pain-relieving qualities. Opioids are any drug with morphine-like properties, from hydrocodone to methadone and anything in between. There is considerable concern about opioid use in the medical community, as they can cause addiction, lower a person’s pain threshold and more.
They are also well-known for causing constipation. So well known, in fact, that experts recommend prescribing stool softeners along with them. If you are prescribed an opioid to manage pain, be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist if you should be taking anything to avoid this unpleasant side effect. After all, you are trying to relieve your pain, NOT create more.
Don’t Ignore the Obvious
Constipation may be an all-too-often-present factor of life, but it doesn’t have to rule the roost. Drink plenty of water, eat healthy fresh fruits and vegetables, and stay physically active. Keep in mind that it can be caused by something as little as not drinking enough water to something as major as a bowel obstruction or cancer. As such, it is not something to be ignored for a long time. If you have suffered from this ailment for any length of time, be sure to have a doctor rule out any major underlying cause.