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Thursday, Aug 12th 2010
When you just can’t go: Constipation 101
Tuesday's post brought a flurry of emails. "Thanks for writing about a subject I'm too embarrassed to talk about," read one. And then there was this one: "I could be your friend, you know, the one who doesn't go to the bathroom for weeks. Frankly, it scares me a little."
So, I did a little more digging on the subject. And here's the deal. Some people move their bowels every day; in fact, they think they get bragging rights about it. (It's almost like bragging about how often they have sex, I swear).
But what's "normal" varies from person to person. The true meaning of "constipation" is having a bowel movement less than three times a week.
Are you wondering what causes it? I was too. And I was surprised to find it's not only when you don't get enough fiber in your diet but also can result from things like dehydration, certain medications (like narcotics and iron) and changes in routine (like travel - I suspected this one), and of course, stress (doesn't stress just mess with everything?). Of course, there are more serious causes, like certain diseases (stroke among them) and conditions (like hypothyroidism).
In an effort to make the world a happier place, here are some constipation dos and don'ts:
Do: Eat enough fiber (At least 2 cups of fruits and 2-1/2 cups of veggies per day) Good sources: beans, whole grains and bran cereals, fresh fruits like apples, peaches, raspberries, tangerines; veggies like cabbage, broccoli, spinach and Brussels sprouts. A word to the wise: if you're not used to eating fiber, add it slowly to your diet to avoid the build-up of gas and bloating.
Don't: Eat foods that have little or no fiber, like ice cream, cheese, meat, and processed foods. Even milk can be binding.
Do: Eat prunes. They're packed with fiber and can add bulk to stool and make it pass more quickly through the colon. They also contain a natural laxative called sorbitol.
Don't: Rely on laxatives. They're okay for a short period of time, but if you begin to rely on them, you need to slowly stop using them so that your colon retains its natural ability to contract. The exception: bulk-forming laxatives are okay and make life, well, easier.
Do: Drink plenty of water. It prevents dehydration, which is a cause of constipation. By the way, things coffee, soda or and alcohol also cause dehydration, so try to go light(er) on these if you are susceptible.
Don't: Put off a trip to the bathroom. I know the urge can hit at inopportune times. Sorry, but waiting will only make the problem worse. So go ahead and tell the person on the other end of the phone you'll call them back. Or be brave and enter the dreaded public restroom.
Do: Get plenty of exercise. Walking, running and even yoga and stretching can be your colon's friend, freeing it up to do its best work.
You may also want to read what our resident experts has to say here and here.