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What Is Constipation?

Many people will suffer from constipation at some time in their lives, affecting men and women as well as children and babies. A study in 2006 found that 12% of people suffered from constipation worldwide.[1] Generally, the elderly are much more likely to suffer periods of constipation. Women are more likely to suffer from constipation too, up to twice as much as men. Interestingly, nearly half of pregnant women will suffer from constipation during their pregnancy.

Constipation can take various forms. Either your stools can be small, hard and difficult to pass, or your bowel movements might become infrequent and irregular. Constipation is often mild and temporary, with no lasting impact on your health. However, sometimes constipation can become long-term, or chronic. This can lead to other problems like faecal impaction, where stool collects in the rectum, or faecal incontinence.

It’s important to remember that everybody’s natural bowel habits are different. There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ frequency. Some people go three times a week, and some people go three times a day. However, what is normal is that you’re consistent and regular, and that when you do go, that you don’t need to strain more than usual. All you have to do is listen to your body, and you’ll know whether your unique rhythm has changed.

Definition

The medical definition of constipation says that you’re constipated if you suffer the symptoms below for more than three months[2]:

  • Produce fewer than three stools per week
  • Pass hard or lumpy stools in 25% of bowel movements
  • Have to strain 25% of bowel movements
  • Feel that you haven’t emptied your bowel on every occasion
  • Feel that you may have an obstruction with some bowel movements

How the bowel actually works is really quite fascinating. When the stomach and intestines have absorbed all the nutrients from the food we eat, the remaining indigestible parts collect in the colon, where the gut absorbs large amounts of water (up to 1 litre a day). What should be left at the end is soft brown stool, which is then moved slowly towards the rectum by a series of muscular movements, normally referred to as peristalsis.

The most common form of constipation is caused when these muscular movements slow down or become sluggish. The waste will spend longer in the colon, where it becomes dryer and harder, making it painful to pass.

Some of the best ways to naturally deal with constipation include:

  • Eating enough fibre
  • Taking a probiotic and/or prebiotic supplement [3] [4] [5]
  • Taking a herbal remedy (like Barberry)
  • Drinking plenty of water.

Read more about the causes of constipation, and how to the relieve the symptoms.

References & Footnotes

[1] The BI Omnibus Study: An international survey of community prevalence of constipation and laxative use in adults. Digestive Disorders. 2006: 20-25 May>

[2]Rome III Diagnostic Criteria for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders [3]Matsumoto M, Imai T, Hironaka T, Kume H, Watanabe M and Benno Y. Effect of Yoghurt with Bifidobacterium lactis LKM512 in Improving Fecal Microflora and Defecation of Healthy Volunteers. Intestine Microbiology Magazine 2001;14:97-102.

[4]Murakami T, Miyahara H, Yukisato S, Nakamura R, Kanno H, Kotakemori M, Kamei T and Kobayashi O. Safety and effect of yoghurt containing Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 on improvement of defecation and fecal microflora in healthy volunteers. Food, Health and Nutrition Research (Journal of Nutritional Food) 2006;9(1):1-12.

[5]Uchida K, Akashi K, Kusunoki I, Ikeda T, Katano N, Motoshima H and Benno Y. Effect of fermented milk containing Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 on stool frequency, defecation, fecal microbiota and safety of excessive ingestion in healthy female students -2nd report. Food Health and Nutrition Research (Journal of Nutritional Food) 2005;8(1):39-51.


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