Constipation happens for many reasons. Diet, hormones, body structure, illness and side effects of medication (including painkillers) can all play a role. Your doctor can help you discover what causes constipation and how to treat it.
Improving your food choices and lifestyle habits will also help maintain healthy bowels and prevent constipation.
Start by looking at your eating pattern. Body systems, including the digestive system, work best when you eat regularly. Skipping meals and overeating to make up for it is hard on you. Instead, eat throughout the day to keep stool moving through the bowel. Try to eat three sensible meals along with one or two healthy snacks each day.
Canada’s Food Guide outlines the foods you need. Include vegetables and fruits, whole grains, milk products, small amounts of protein-rich foods (meats, fish, brown beans, eggs, nuts and seeds), and healthy fats and oils (like canola and olive oil).
Over 500 species of bacteria call your large intestine home. Some help, while others do harm. When the intestinal system is working normally, a balance exists between the amounts of good and bad bacteria in the gut.
Science is exploring links between the imbalance of different bacteria in the gut and the development of diseases. Some research is looking at how bacteria may affect problems and diseases of the digestive system, including constipation, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, diarrhea, pancreatitis, hepatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and abdominal bloating.
Good bacteria help you maintain bowel health. They form a barrier in the intestines to protect against the invasion of harmful bacteria. They also strengthen and balance the immune system, produce vitamins, and help you digest food. The term for these healthful, friendly, live bacteria is ‘probiotics.’
The most common probiotics are types of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Including probiotics regularly in your diet can help you stay healthy. They are found in fermented dairy products (yogurt, acidophilus milk and kefir). Read labels to look for products with added probiotics, such as juice.
‘Prebiotics’ are nutrients that feed these friendly gut bacteria. Carbohydrates in some fruits, vegetables and whole grain products that ferment in the intestine are one source. Food labels can tell you if other prebiotics, such as inulin (chicory root) and FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides), have been added to bread, juice, pasta or yogurt.
To get the 25 to 38 grams of fibre you need in your daily diet, try to eat:
Each serving of fruit or vegetables provides two to four grams of fibre. Whole grain gives three to 12 grams, while legumes offer eight. Include extra fibre in the following ways:
Roughage, bulk, fibre − you have heard it before − is important for bowel health. Dietary fibre is the part of the plant that we cannot digest and absorb in the small intestine. These are skins, seeds, and plant cell walls. Fibre serves many important functions. It helps create bulk in the colon and prevent constipation. It gives us a feeling of fullness, which curbs appetite and reduces the risk for obesity.
Fibre is credited for helping to keep blood glucose levels normal and reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease. In addition, fibre helps to feed microflora, or bacteria, in the colon (part of the large intestine). It is no wonder that dietary fibre should be a regular part of meals and snacks.
Two types of dietary fibre exist. Soluble fibre dissolves in hot water, while the insoluble type does not. Most fibre-rich foods contain a little of each kind. Fruits, dried beans, peas and lentils, psyllium, oats and oat bran are common foods high in soluble fibre. Soluble fibre helps keep cholesterol and blood glucose at normal levels. Whole grains, cereals and vegetables are high in insoluble fibre. They keep bowels regular and reduce the risk of colon cancer.
The richest sources of dietary fibre are vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Each day, adult males should eat 38 grams of fibre. Adult women need 25 grams, while pregnant and breastfeeding women need 28 to 29 grams a day.
Fluid is critical, especially if you suffer from constipation. Fluids help keep stool (bowel contents) soft. Men should drink about 13 cups (three litres) a day, while women need nine cups (2.2 litres). These amounts include water and other beverages.
Drink a small glass of 100 per cent unsweetened juice at breakfast, include plenty of water through the day, and serve milk at meals. Although coffee and other caffeinated beverages can help you meet your fluid needs, drink a moderate amount.
Be aware that since sport drinks, punches and pop are very high in sugar, they are not your best beverages choices. Instead, keep a container of water in your desk, backpack, vehicle, or on the kitchen counter to remind you to drink, drink, drink.
If you count the number of steps you take in a day, are you getting the amount of activity you need? How about if you add in the number of times you do hard physical work, or tally your lengths in the pool?
Canada’s Physical Activity Guide to Healthy Active Living encourages Canadians to move more. The guide divides activity into three types – endurance, flexibility, and strength – and suggests you vary between them on most days of the week. Being active offers a long list of health benefits and helps your digestive system work well.
Adjusting your diet, making certain you get enough to drink, and fitting in physical activity are all simple ways to improve bowel health. Your doctor is available to help with any questions or concerns you may have about this basic body function.