Constipation! It’s uncomfortable, that’s for sure. But what is it exactly and what does it mean? It is one of the most common digestive problems in the United States, affecting around 2.5 million people. Constipation is defined as having hard, dry bowel movements, or going fewer than three times a week. It also can mean having the sensation of not emptying. In older adults, it tends to be more common. Up to 50% of older adults may suffer from constipation.
What’s causing your inability to be regular? Usually it’s too little fiber in the diet. But too little fluid, lack of exercise, or a possible side effect from medication can also be the culprit. Regardless of the exact reason, if you are experiencing constipation, usually it’s an indication that something isn’t right.
Let’s have a look at fiber. Fiber occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, legumes, lentils and whole grains. The key word here is whole foods. Refined foods, processed foods, and animal proteins contain minimal, if any, fiber.
How much fiber do I need?
The National Academy of Medicine, which provides science-based advice on matters of medicine and health, recommends the following:
- Men under 50 – 38 grams per day
- Women under 50 – 25 grams per day
- Men over 50 – 30 grams per day
- Women over 50 – 21-25 grams per day
To meet your daily requirements, consider that foods with fiber should take up most of your plate. Foods without fiber should be no more than a quarter of your plate.
Exercise and Activity
Exercise and activity in general is also vital to keep your stools soft and flowing. Dr. Judy Nee, a gastroenterologist at Harvard’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center says, “Movement on the outside increases movement on the inside.” Even just working up to a 30 minute brisk walk daily will help increase your peristalsis, which is the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine. That will help bring your stool forward and help you eliminate.
Drinking enough fluid is also vital to preventing constipation. Water is definitely the name of the game. The water which is not absorbed in the small intestine and colon acts as a lubricant in the bottom of the digestive tract. So strive to drink about 8 cups of water per day, or at least 6 plus some green or black tea.
Foods to stay away from
While knowing what to eat to reduce the chances of constipation is important, just as important is knowing what NOT to eat. Among constipating foods are: all junk and fast food, refined foods and grains (like white bread), alcohol, and animal proteins (including fish, dairy, and eggs). Basically, we want to keep consumption of these foods to an extreme minimum, while increasing the fiber rich foods we spoke about earlier.
Although constipation is defined as going fewer than three times a week, ideally one should have a bowel movement every day for great health. With all the discomfort constipation brings, it usually is also a good indicator that something isn’t right and there may be longer term consequences to being constipated. The more common problems are hemorrhoids, total impaction, and bowel incontinence where you leak around the impacted stool.
However, there is even a greater concern. In a study done in 2012 and presented at the conference of the American College of Gastroenterology, it was found that people who suffered from constipation after age 18, meaning they had at least 2 diagnoses of constipation, had nearly double the instance of colon cancer than people who weren’t constipated. This is worrisome and is just another reason why diets that are Keto/Paleo in nature may be, in the long term, hazardous to your health. There was one subsequent study showing that constipation may not increase the chances of colon cancer. However, as we still don’t have any research showing and absolute connection, it would still be best to err on the side of caution.
Maintain your health
Constipation is certainly uncomfortable but it is also a health hazard. The vast majority of the time it has to do with lifestyle habits– diet, movement and activity, and hydration. You can be in control! If you have been experiencing a chronic problem, aside from these changes, you may want to get natural psyllium husks (seeds) and take it every day for a month to add a lot of fiber into your diet. (A nice side effect can also be a lowering of cholesterol.) Even when you begin to be more regular, continue taking it until your gut has completely undergone the necessary changes.
Taking care of constipation will make you feel better, will put you in a good mood and it will “add hours to your day, days to your year and years to your life.”