Many people feel that regularity is the key to good health. Is this true or is it a myth? Grandmothers around the world have promoted daily bowel movements for generations, but there is no evidence that a trip to the bathroom each morning is necessary. People vary in the frequency that suits them best. Some do well on a schedule of no more than three times a week. Others feel good on a schedule as frequent as a few times a day.
Constipation is defined as unsatisfactory defecation155, but doctors and patients don’t always agree on what is most important. Physicians may prefer objective measures like the number of days between bowel movements. But people may be as concerned about consistency as frequency. They complain about the effort of passing hard “golf ballsâ€ or “bricks.â€
Sometimes physicians dismiss constipation as a minor complaint. While it is not usually life threatening, constipation can be serious. Almost 100,000 people are hospitalized each year for constipation-related problems. Many more suffer considerable distress and reduced quality of life as a result of this common condition.
Fluids and fiber are the cornerstones of constipation prevention. Those who are constipated are often urged to drink more water. Adequate fluid (at least 6 glasses of water a day) is essential, but unless someone is actually dehydrated, drinking extra water does not solve the problem of hard stools. Together with fiber, though, the fluids may help. The first step, of course, is to make sure that the diet contains at least 25 grams of fiber a day. That may take some doing, but it can be accomplished with 5 to 10 servings of vegetables and fruits a day, along with whole grains rather than refined bread, pasta, crackers, and the like. For some people, though, even that may not be enough to conquer constipation completely.
If constipation arises suddenly or if it starts to interfere with everyday activities, it makes sense to check in with your doctor. There are some conditions, such as an underactive thyroid gland or Parkinson’s disease, that can lead to constipation. In those cases the underlying disease needs to be treated.
Warning signs that should trigger a doctor’s visit include blood in the stool or bleeding from the rectum; dark, tarry stool; weight loss of 10 pounds or more; a family history of colon cancer; or a positive Hemoccult test, a way of identifying invisible blood in the stool.156 Be sure to tell the doctor about any of these issues, so the proper work-up can be done.
People taking medications or even supplements should also check with their doctor to see whether one of these might be responsible. A surprising number of prescription drugs can trigger constipation as a side effect. Because of the impact that constipation can have on their sense of well-being, patients sometimes become upset if doctors don’t warn them that a prescribed medication may interfere with bowel function. Narcotics are among the most notorious offenders, but there are many others. Sometimes, switching to a different medicine can ease the problem. The physician should always be involved in such a decision, because some of these drugs may be essential treatment for a serious condition such as cancer or AIDS.
Constipation accompanied by pain, nausea, vomiting, or fever should not be ignored. It deserves medical attention. Even without such symptoms, persistent constipation should also be brought to a physician’s attention. Uncomplicated constipation may respond to home treatment.
- Begin with diet. Make sure you get six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water or other fluids daily. Concentrate on increasing fiber, and make sure you get 25 to 35 grams daily.
- Ask your doctor to check whether a medical condition or medication may be causing your constipation.
- Eat fruit. Apples, dried apricots, and (in moderation) dried plums, aka prunes, are a wonderful way to establish regularity when needed.
- Sprinkle ground flaxseed on your food, or take a solution of simmered flaxseed in juice.
- Chew sugarless gum or enjoy sugar-free candy for its laxative effect.
- Take psyllium as directed, with an 8-ounce glass of water.
- Docusate may soften stools and ease straining.
- Milk of magnesia may give relatively quick relief, but should not be overused. It’s off-limits for anyone with kidney trouble.
- Prescription drugs such as MiraLax are intended for short-term use of less than 2 weeks.