Questions to Ask
Some doctors suggest asking these questions to decide if you are really
If the answers are yes,
you probably do have a problem. Otherwise, you probably do not.
- Do you often have
fewer than three bowel movements each week?
- Do you often have
a hard time passing stools?
- Is there pain?
- Are there other
problems such as bleeding?
What Causes Constipation?
Doctors do not always know what causes this problem. Eating a poor diet,
drinking too little, or misusing laxatives can be causes. Some medicines
can lead to constipation. These include some antidepressants, antacids
containing aluminum or calcium, antihistamines, diuretics, and antiparkinsonism
The role of diet.
People may become constipation if they start eating fewer vegetables,
fruits, and whole grains. These foods are all high in fiber, and, according
to some studies, high fiber diets can help prevent constipation. Eating
more high fat meats, dairy products, and eggs can be another cause of
constipation. So can eating more rich desserts and other sweets high in
People who live alone
may lose interest in cooking and eating. As a result they start using
a lot of convenience foods. These tend to be low in fiber, so they may
help cause constipation. In addition, bad teeth may cause older people
to choose soft, processed foods that contain little, if any, fiber.
do not drink enough fluids, especially if they are not eating regular
meals. Water and other liquids add bulk to stools, making bowel movements
Misuse of laxatives
and enemas. Many people think of laxatives as the cure for constipation.
But heavy use of laxatives is usually not necessary and often can be habit
forming. The body begins to rely on the laxatives to bring on bowel movements
and, over time, forgets how to work on its own. For the same reason, if
you use enemas often you may lose normal bowel function. Another side
effect of heavy laxative use is diarrhea.
Overuse of mineral
oil-a popular laxative-may reduce the body’s ability to use vitamins (A,
D, E, and K). Mineral oil may also interact with drugs that prevent blood
clots (anticoagulants), causing undesired side effects.
Other causes of
constipation. Lack of exercise or lengthy bedrest, such as after an
accident or illness, may cause constipation. For people who stay in bed
and who suffer from chronic constipation, medications may be the best
solution. But simply being more active, when possible, is best.
If people ignore
the natural urge to have a bowel movement, they may become constipated.
Some people prefer to have their bowel movements only at home, but holding
a bowel movement can cause ill effects if the delay is too long.
In some people, constipation
may be caused by abnormalities or a blockage of the intestines. These
disorders may affect the muscles or nerves responsible for normal bowel
movements. A doctor can perform a series of tests to see if a problem
like this is the cause of constipation. If so, the problem can often be
If you become constipated, first see the doctor to rule out a more serious
problem. If the results show that there is no disease or blockage, and
if your doctor approves, try these remedies:
- Eat more fresh
fruits and vegetables, either cooked or raw, and more whole grain cereals
and breads. Dried fruit such as apricots, prunes, and figs are especially
high in fiber.
- Drink plenty of
liquids (1 to 2 quarts daily), unless you have heart, blood vessel,
or kidney problems. But be aware that some people become constipated
from drinking large amounts of milk.
- Some doctors recommend
adding small amounts of unprocessed bran (“miller’s bran”) to baked
goods, cereals, and fruit. Some people suffer from bloating and gas
for several weeks after adding bran to their diets. Make diet changes
slowly, to allow the digestive system to adapt. Remember, if your diet
is well balanced and contains a variety of foods high in natural fiber,
it may not be necessary to add bran to other foods.
- Stay active.
Do not expect to
have a bowel movement every day or even every other day. “Regularity”
differs from person to person. If your bowel movements are usually painless
and occur regularly (whether two times a day or three times a week), then
you are probably not constipated.
More information about constipation is available from the National Digestive
Diseases Information Clearinghouse, Box NDDIC, Bethesda, MD 20892, (301)