North Jefferson News, Gardendale, AL

September 30, 2011

Bowel issues a common problem with easy remedy

Health Watch

By Steve Mullenix
North Jefferson News

COMMENTARY — Constipation is one of those topics that few like to talk about, but many experience.  If you’ve suffered from the problem, you know how painful and frustrating it can be.  Everyone experiences constipation at some time in his life. The condition is more common in the elderly, and is usually not serious, but can be a concern.

Constipation occurs when bowel movements become difficult or less frequent. The normal timing between bowel movements varies from individual to individual. For some, it can be three times a day, for others once every three weeks (you know who you are).

Going longer than three days without a bowel movement is too long for many and the stool becomes harder and more difficult to pass.

You can consider yourself constipated if you have two or more of the following in a three-month period:

• Straining during a bowel movement more than 25 percent of the time

• Hard stools more than 25 percent of the time

• Incomplete evacuation more than 25 percent of the time

• Two or fewer bowel movements per week


Constipation can be attributed to a number of causes. It is considered a disorder of bowel function than a structural problem. Some of the more common causes of constipation are:

• Inadequate water intake

• Inadequate fiber in the diet

• A disruption of regular diet or routine, such as traveling

• Inadequate activity or exercise or mobility

• Eating large amounts of dairy products

• Stress

• Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement due to some painful condition such as hemorrhoids

• Overuse of laxatives

• Irritable bowel syndrome, colon cancer, pregnancy, hypothyroidism or neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease

• Medications

• Depression

• Eating disorders

Most people do not need extensive testing to diagnose constipation. Only a very small percentage of individuals suffering from constipation have a more serious medical problem.  If your constipation lasts longer than two weeks, you may want to think about seeing your physician to determine the source of your problem and treat it.  

If necessary, your physician can offer a number of different tests to assess the cause of constipation.  Those tests include blood work, barium studies of the colon and a colonoscopy.

Here are some interesting myths and truths about constipation.

Myth: If you don’t have one bowel movement a day it is abnormal.

Fact: Less than 50 percent of the population has one bowel movement per day.

Myth: Fewer than four to six bowel movements per week mean you are constipated.

Fact: 95 percent of adults have three to 21 bowel movements per week.

Myth: Toxins accumulate in the intestines when bowel movements are infrequent.

Fact: There is no evidence that “toxins” accumulate in the body due to infrequent bowel movements.

Myth: The number of bowel movements increase with age.

Fact: Actually, the converse is true; the number of movements decrease with age.


There are a number of things you can do to prevent constipation:

• Eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fiber.

• Drink 1 to 2 quarts of water or other fluids per day. Drinks that contain caffeine, such as coffee, tea or soft drinks, seem to have a dehydrating effect and may need to be avoided until bowel activity returns to normal.

• Exercise regularly.

• Go to the bathroom when you feel the urge.


So you are now thinking, what should I do if I become constipated? There are a number of very simple things to try to relieve the condition:

• Drink two to four extra glasses of water per day.

• Try warm liquids, especially in the morning.

• Add fruit and vegetables to your diet.

• Eat prunes or bran cereal.

• If needed, consult your pharmacist for a mild stool softener or laxative. Do not use a laxative for more than a week or two. Laxative overuse can aggravate your symptoms or result in a dependency. Contact your physician if:

• Constipation is a new and life altering condition for you.

• You have blood in your stools.

• You are losing weight without dieting.

• You have painful bowel movements.

• Your constipation lasts longer than two weeks.

Because chronic constipation can be a symptom of more serious problems such as colon cancer, frequent and prolonged constipation needs to be evaluated.  

However, in most cases the condition is self-limited, and can be treated with a simple change in diet or a visit to your pharmacy.