All of us become constipated on occasion. In fact, it is one of the most common complaints I hear in my over 40-age patients. It can be caused by either the food we eat, or don’t eat; lack of sufficient water, stress/anxiety, and lack of sufficient exercise. As I tell my patients who get occasional constipation, you can almost always relieve it by taking a few easy steps.
However, sometimes constipation can be part of an irritable bowel syndrome where you alternate between being constipated and having diarrhea. Or, in some people with IBS, constipation is the dominant symptom. Regardless, here are some helpful things you can do to both relieve and prevent symptoms of constipation whether occasional or chronic.
How To Remedy Constipation
Like many of my patients, you may keep a pretty hectic schedule. At times you may forgo taking the time to eat the right foods, exercise, sleep the necessary amount of hours, or even drink enough water. Instead, you may be grabbing convenience foods, which usually lack sufficient fiber, and drinking a lot of caffeinated beverages to make up for lack of sleep. Too much caffeine can dehydrate you and add to constipation woes.
In addition, if you have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may also have stress/anxiety issues, which can add to your symptoms. Finding ways to handle stress and anxiety can go a long way in helping prevent/relieve IBS symptoms.
Chronic constipation can also cause physical damage to the intestine and rectal area through the development of hemorrhoids (a varicose vein that can form from straining), tears, ulcers, or fissures. These conditions can make elimination painful and result in bleeding. Here’s what I tell my patients about how to both prevent and remedy bouts of constipation:
- Fiber. Between 25-30 grams of fiber a day is necessary to keep the bowel working in tip top shape. The best sources of fiber are green leafy vegetables, legumes (beans), berries, apples, sweet potatoes, bran, flax seeds.
- Water. Water hydrates you and helps flush toxins and wastes from your body. Drink half your body weight in water every day. If you weigh 150, you should be drinking at least 75 ounces of water a day, more if you are exercising/sweating heavily, or live in a hot, humid environment. Also, drink an additional 8 ounces of water for every 8 ounces of caffeinated drink you have.
- Exercise. Sitting at desk jobs all day can lead to constipation. Take a quick walk around every 2 hours. Use half of your lunch hour to take a walk. Get aerobic exercise at least 30 minutes every day. Specific pelvic floor exercises, like Kegel’s, and others, can help strengthen lower pelvis muscles, including those used in contractions of the intestines.
- Good fats. Trying to lose weight, many people cut fats from their diet – even the good ones. We need a certain amount of fat to process fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E) keep our skin from drying out, and help the bowel work correctly. Take 1-2 T of olive oil per day, either as a salad dressing mixed with red wine vinegar, garlic and spices, or straight from the spoon. Two, 1,000 mg Omega-3 Fish Oil caps a day is also a good fat.
- Magnesium. Taking a 500 mg tablet of magnesium can help constipation by relaxing the smooth muscle of the bowel. Magnesium deficiency is chronic in Americans these days, and constipation can be one of the symptoms. Take 250-500 mg magnesium a day.
- Foods to limit/avoid. If you tend to get constipated easily, limiting cheese and whey products (like protein powder products or some protein bars) can help. Foods like bananas, white rice, and applesauce act as food binders which aggravate constipation. Caffeine should be kept at a minimum. Temporarily, 200 mg of caffeine can often relieve constipation, but chronic high caffeine intake can add to dehydration which dries out the bowel. Alcohol can also dehydrate you – drink sparingly, and add an extra glass of water for each 4 ounces of alcohol.
Although whole grains have a good amount of fiber in them, most of them also contain gluten which can irritate IBS. If you have IBS, and want to eat grains, go with the gluten-free type. If you have only occasional constipation, you may include whole grain cereals, breads in your diet. However, do be mindful of the sugar content of these products as too much sugar in the diet can cause dehydration as well.
- Colon cleansers. Every 4 months, or 3 times a year, it’s good to give your bowel a break for 2 days and allow it to clean itself out. Sip hot lemon juice in the morning, drink low sugar vegetable juices throughout the day with a few tablespoons of rice protein added, drink enough water for your weight, take a few tablespoons of olive oil, and drink herbal or lower caffeine teas throughout the day. This will detox the bowel as well as the liver.
Use commercial herbal colon-cleanse products, or laxatives, sparingly as they can eventually do more harm than good. Most of them contain senna, or cascara sagrada – powerful bowel stimulants. Used once in a while, they can be helpful. But, frequently, these stimulants can damage the “go” signal in your intestine and make constipation worse. In addition, I feel that prescription drugs used to treat constipation, like lactulose, and Amitiza, can also do more harm than good on a chronic basis. It’s best to try and get your body’s natural signals to work and/or prevent constipation in the first place.
Constipation can be frustrating and uncomfortable. It can make you feel bloated and sluggish. Following the recommendations here can help alleviate constipation and prevent further bouts with it. Dealing with stress/anxiety through exercise, or biofeedback, can also help with lack of sleep and muscle tension, which aggravate constipation.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Treating Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Constipation, http://www.webmd.com/ibs/treating-constipation
Dealing with Constipation from IBS, http://ibdcrohns.about.com/cs/ibs/a/aa042103.htm
Remedies for Constipation Relief, http://altmedicine.about.com/od/constipation/a/constipation.htm