What is constipation?
Constipation happens when faecal material (stool) moves through your bowel too slowly. This can happen for several reasons and the end result is (that it is) difficult to pass, hard or dry stools. Good bowel movements are considered to be well formed stools once sometimes twice per day whereas constipation could be defined as fewer than 3 spontaneous, complete, bowel movements per week.
What causes constipation?
There are several key reasons for constipation including poor nutrition, food intolerances, stress/ anxiety, inadequate sleep, limited exercise and gut bacterial imbalance. Certain diseases and medications can also cause constipation. It is important to rule out intestinal or other major diseases causing constipation especially when it is of sudden onset, or a change happens for no apparent reason.
The governing controls of good bowel movements involve 1) stool bulk, 2) stool fluidity/ lubrication, 3) nerve reflexes that control (of) peristalsis (muscular movement of the gut). The function of bowel movements can be understood through these categories.
Autonomic Nervous System: Sympathetic vs Parasympathetic
These two nervous systems drive many (neurological) functions of our organs. The Sympathetic nervous system is your “Fight or Flight” system. Acute sympathetic arousal helps us to “run away from tigers” for example. The parasympathetic nervous helps you “rest and digest”. Stress and our busy lifestyles often overload our sympathetic nervous system, contributing to digestive issues.
What are the consequences of being constipated?
Firstly the more serious causes of constipation should be excluded. Symptoms of chronic constipation include discomfort with bowel movements, haemorrhoids and anal fissures from straining, abdominal bloating, cramps, malodourous wind, faecal incontinence or leakage and low back pain.
Constipation may be present without symptoms but will still cause problems because the faecal toxic material is not being excreted efficiently.
Why is fibre (is) so important?
Fibre is the part of plant food that is not digested. There are two kinds: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fibre gives bulk to the stool . Foods that are good sources of soluble fibre include apples, bananas, oats and green beans. Insoluble fibre helps speed up the transit of food in the digestive tract and also feeds the bacterial flora in your large bowel. It is crucial in maintaining their ecosystem and the good health of the mucous membrane lining of your colon. . Good sources of insoluble fibre include whole grains, most vegetables, bran, and legumes. Foods that have fibre contain both soluble and insoluble fibres. A good daily intake would be 20-30 grams of dietary fibre per day.
General guidelines for avoiding constipation
- Eat regular meals each day.
- Increase the amount of high-fibre foods in your diet : select raw fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Aim to eat upwards of 5 portions of vegetables a day.
- Drink six to eight glasses of water each day.
- Limit refined and processed foods including all white flour goods.
- Eat sufficient amounts of good fats (eg oily fish, coconut , ghee) and oils (eg cold pressed olive oil and flax oil eaten raw) which aid lubrication. Soaking seeds (chia or flax seeds) overnight in water and adding them to your meals can help.
- Limit foods which (with) have little or (of) no fibre, such as cheese, ice cream, meat and processed food.
Exercise and Sleep
- Exercise regularly. Do weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, running, and climbing stairs, three or more times each week.
- Go to sleep at a regular time each night. Make sure you get enough sleep.
Rest and digest
- Develop strategies for reducing (handling) your stress ( eg mindfulness, yoga, meditation). Green tea, Vitamin C and activities such as dancing, singing, listening to music and sexual activity all activate your parasympathetic nervous system.
- Practice deep breathing whenever you feel anxious or your stress increasing.
- Make sure you eat sitting down, chew your food well and try not to eat in front of the computer or TV