Constipation is defined as infrequent bowel movements (usually fewer than three per week). Though many people experience occasional constipation, some people suffer from chronic constipation, which is usually associated with difficulty passing stools, hard or lumpy stools, or excessive straining to pass a bowel movement. While chronic constipation is a problem that is more likely to affect the elderly due to their poor nutritional habits, increased medications, and lack of activity, it is a condition that affects people across the lifespan. Here are some simple tips to treat (and prevent) constipation.
Drink More Water
Adequate hydration is crucial to preventing constipation, since water helps to move stool through your intestines. A good rule of thumb is to drink at least half of your body weight in fluid ounces each day. For example, a 150-pound person would need a minimum of 75 ounces of fluid each day. If you exercise or work outside in the heat, your fluid needs are increased beyond the minimum requirements. Avoid excessive alcohol and caffeine intake, since they can have a dehydrating effect.
Increase Physical Activity
Exercise can help to make bowel movements more regular. It can also decrease stress that may lead to constipation. You don’t have to do an intense cardiovascular workout to reap the benefits: simply walking 10-15 minutes three times each day can help to stimulate your intestines, encouraging regular bowel movements.
Get the Right Kind of Fiber into Your Diet
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber, which does not dissolve in water, adds more bulk to your stool and helps to move that stool through the intestines. The best sources of insoluble fiber are whole grains such as whole grain breads, cereal, rice, and pasta as well as seeds, nuts, and some produce. If you want to get more insoluble fiber into your diet, increase it gradually over two weeks, since a rapid increase in fiber intake can lead to excessive bloating and discomfort. Your final fiber goal should be at least 25 grams of fiber each day.
Soluble fiber, which can dissolve in water, is also important for your health. The soluble fiber found in beans, peas, and some fruits and vegetables may lower your risk of heart disease, even though it does not contribute to adding bulk to your stool.
The Bottom Line
Occasional constipation is normal, but chronic constipation can be a serious problem. Seek advice from your medical professional for a thorough evaluation of the underlying cause of your constipation. If dietary changes are not helpful, there are medications that can be prescribed to treat chronic constipation, but they should be used under the guidance of a physician.
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Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., is a registered dietitian, receiving her undergraduate degree in dietetics from James Madison University and her master’s degree in health education and administration from Towson University. She is a certified specialist in adult weight management and teaches cooking classes. Carmen enjoys educating her clients about how nutrition affects the body and its role in overall health and wellness. She also loves volunteering, including as a Girl Scout troop leader.