Q. Can constipation cause cancer? My mother is convinced that a daily bowel movement is essential for good health. She insists that constipation leads to colon cancer.
I worry that she is hooked on laxatives. Haven’t I read in your column that regular use is harmful? When I mention this she always claims that her laxatives are safe because the ingredients are natural.
A. Researchers have been debating this question for decades. A study in the journal Epidemiology (July, 1998) reported an association between constipation and colon cancer. The authors were quick to point out that constipation could have been a symptom rather than a cause of colon cancer.
A more recent study from the Netherlands published in the American Journal of Epidemiology (Dec. 15, 2010) reported exactly the opposite results. People with constipation actually had lower rates of colorectal cancer than those with frequent bowel movements.
Bottom line, we cannot tell you definitively whether constipation is a risk for colon cancer. One possibility is that people with constipation problems may tend to eat a diet that is low in fiber (lacking in fruits, vegetables and whole grains). The nutrients and fiber in such foods may help protect against cancer.
Laxatives are not the solution, though. Some herbal laxatives (senna, aloe, cascara sagrada and buckthorn) can be irritating to the digestive tract. There is also concern that ingredients in some “natural” products may be carcinogenic.
To avoid constipation, drink plenty of water, exercise regularly and eat a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If that approach is not adequate, taking bran or a bulk forming laxative containing psyllium, polycarbophil or methylcellulose usually produces the desired result. Regular use of bulk forming laxatives does not appear to be troublesome.
You may also find our Guide To Digestive Disorders of benefit. In this brochure we provide a formula for Power Pudding which nurses have been using for decades to overcome hard-to-treat constipation. There is also a recipe for dynamite pumpkin-bran muffins that works like a charm to keep things regular. We also include Joe & Terry’s 10 Tips to Combat Constipation. Please let us know if anything in our Guide does the trick for your mom.