Originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard. Most people experience constipation from time to time, but what about those who suffer from it daily? It can be very uncomfortable, physically, and frustrating, emotionally.
There are three basic criteria for proper poop: it should be formed, it should be easy to pass and it should happen at least once per day. Believe it or not, there is actually a handy reference tool for classifying the consistency of stool. It’s called the Bristol Stool Chart. According to the chart, stool ranges from entirely liquid to hard lumps, like nuts. The ideal stool is “like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft.” Their words, not mine.
Constipation is rarely a sign of something seriously wrong, but rather a reminder to check in on your health habits. If you are suffering from constipation, use these five keys to get back on track.
1. Fibre. An adult should get about 25 grams or more of fibre per day. That’s quite a bit when you consider an apple has four to five grams. Beans are very high in fibre. There are a lot of high-fibre cereals on the market, but would you rather eat three-quarters of a cup of bran or one cup of raspberries? The raspberries provide more fibre. When it comes to fibre supplements, I recommend inulin or chia seeds over psyllium. It is possible to overdo the fibre, which can leave you with bloating, gas and, yes, constipation.
2. Water. Along with all that fibre, you need water to keep things moving properly. A good rule of thumb is to drink enough that you do not feel thirsty. If you don’t like drinking water, make an extra effort to get used to it. Try out herbal teas, or look for flavoured water recipes that use whole foods: lemon water, vanilla water … the options are endless.
3. Physical activity. Repetitive, aerobic activities, among the many other benefits you have heard of, help your bowels stay regular. This is especially important if you have a job that keeps you sitting most of the day.
4. Following the call. Ladies, I know many of you are guilty of this and I bet many men are too. You’re out in public and you need to go, but you ignore it because the thought of using a public restroom is unacceptable. Yes, many washrooms leave something to be desired (cleanliness, privacy, sometimes even toilet paper), but it is important to listen and respect your body’s signals.
5. Eliminating food sensitivities. Food sensitivities can produce an almost endless list of symptoms, and one of them is constipation. There are two ways to determine whether you have food sensitivities: a elimination diet and blood testing. The elimination diet is much more difficult and much more accurate.
So what do you do if you find yourself in a bind? There are many, many tricks to try. One very easy one is to drink a tall glass of water right after waking up — at least 500 ml. A more pleasant one is to soak some prunes and dried figs in water overnight and drink the juice. You can also eat the soaked fruit. For some people, nice, bitter coffee or dark chocolate works.
Sometimes a laxative may be necessary, but keep it as a last resort. Laxatives, even natural ones, can be habit forming. That means that over time, instead of using them for relief, you require them.
A note for pregnant ladies: constipation is a very common concern in pregnancy, but stimulating laxatives aren’t safe for you. That includes aloe, senna, cascara, castor oil and diphenylmethane. Lubiprostone, although it works differently, is also not safe in pregnancy.
If you find yourself experiencing constipation on a constant, or repeated basis, it is a good idea to see your health-care practitioner so they can make sure that nothing is seriously wrong and help you get relief that lasts.