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Guide to constipation. What increases the risk and can reduce its symptoms?

Constipation is something not many people like to talk about, but it is a common problem worldwide and prevalent in 20-30% of Australians, most commonly amongst children, elderly and pregnant women.

What is constipation and how does it affect our health?

Constipation is defined as -‘a condition of the bowels in which the faeces are dry and hardened and evacuation is difficult and infrequent.’

Constipation impacts our quality of life, affecting both physical and emotional well-being.  Appropriate management of the condition is centred on preventive lifestyle and dietary measures, as well as acute symptomatic relief where required.

Contributing factors of constipation are deep rooted problems of colonic or anorectal function, often related to the following risk factors; psychological distress, pharmacotherapy, neurological, gastrointestinal, metabolic or obstruction. Another influencing factor - water absorption and GIT motility, these are major processes influencing colonic function. Fluid passed from the small intestine to the colon is absorbed to a large degree and waste transported to the rectum, where it is stored until defecation occurs. Colonic transit in adults typically ranges from 20hrs to 72hrs. However, in constipation, waste is retained in the colon for longer periods - therefore becoming dry over time which may lead to scybalation (pebble-like stools) and possible impaction. Dehydration increases water removal from faeces which explains why inadequate water intake increases constipation.

A healthy gastrointestinal tract has normal, stable commensal flora and healthy barrier function. It is vital for effective food digestion and absorption and plays a key role in immune-mediated processes and in the prevention of developing infections, inflammation and metabolic disorders.

What increases the risk of constipation and unhealthy bowel regulation?

The following factors can increase the risk of constipation:

  • Bowel habits (suppression)
  • Low fibre and calorie intake
  • Excessive use of stimulant laxatives
  • Amount and type of medications use
  • Hormonal disorders (menopause)
  • Ageing (however constipation is not a physiological consequence of normal ageing)
  • Psychosomatic causes (anxiety, depression and stress)
  • Physical inactivity
  • Physical and sexual abuse
  • Female sex (higher incidence of self-reported constipation in women)
  • Lower socioeconomic classes (likely due to lifestyle and dietary habits)
  • Pregnancy
  • Change to routine (e.g. travel)

How can you reduce the symptoms of constipation to promote healthy bowel function?

Treatment of constipation depends on the underlying cause and the duration that it has been present. The most common ways to reduce the symptoms of constipation–

  • Increase your daily intake of fluid
  • Consume more fibre and vegetables
  • Create a regular exercise routine
  • Reduce stress levels (Meditation can help this)

To relieve constipation quickly you can try the above-mentioned ways, you can take some fibre supplements or drinks, good probiotics often work or even the good old prune juice but these are not long term solutions. Long term we need to discover why you are constipated to begin with and then look at restoring your gut health rather than just relieving your symptoms.

Restoring your bowels back to a healthy function isn’t a one size fits all matter. You need to consider the areas in your life that are out of balance. For example, if you don’t exercise then taking up a routine of regular exercise could help you immensely. However, if regular exercise is already in your routine then you may need to add more fibre to your diet or reduce your stress levels. Either way, if you are suffering chronic or long-term constipation then it will more than likely require a consultation with a professional and changes in several areas to create that healthy gut system again.

In Summary

Therefore, if you are experiencing constipation it is important to explore and highlight areas that may be influencing your health and bowel function. When addressing bowel regularity here in clinic, we consider the clients current health status and diet and establish an appropriate treatment plan.  Managing bowel regularity and constipation is an important part of clinical practice at Food For Life. Assisting individuals to restore digestion, general health and quality of life. Please contact us if constipation and bowel regularity is a problem for you so that we can help get you back on track to optimal health!

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