Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Many Americans struggle with constipation and may turn to laxatives to cope. Professor Anding explains why this is not an effective long-term solution and what to do instead.
Constipation is one of the most common intestinal problems in Western societies, though studies vary. Some studies suggest as little as two percent of the North American population has problems with constipation, and other studies say up to 27 percent, but the average falls between 12 percent to 19 percent.
The causes of constipation are multifactorial, as with diarrhea, but one cause can be long-term use of iron compounds. Women who take supplemental iron during pregnancy often experience constipation.
Ironically, laxatives, which are meant to relieve constipation, can have the opposite effect when taken regularly. Large amounts of laxatives loosen some of the tone in your large intestine and can actually lead to a laxative dependence. If you’ve been consuming laxatives in an attempt to cope with chronic constipation, you should explore alternatives with your physician.
Additionally, stress can alter the way your nervous system performs. It can shut down the last sphincter—the final one-way valve your food passes through in its journey through the digestive system—and cause some difficulty having a bowel movement.
Other common reasons for constipation include low fiber intake—an issue for most Americans—and low fluid intake. The large intestine pulls fluid out if you’re dehydrated, which means that you’ll end up with harder waste products in the large intestine.
Lack of exercise is another cause. Exercise massages and moves around your gut, increasing the movement of food through your digestive system.
You can treat constipation with an adequate intake of fiber. Men under the age of 50 should eat somewhere in the range of 38 grams per day, but a lot of that depends on the number of calories consumed.
Women under the age of 50 need somewhere in the range of 25 grams per day. High-fiber foods include pears, strawberries, apples, split peas, chickpeas, and chia seeds.
Finally, you need to increase exercise. Aerobic exercises such as jogging and swimming as well as gentle stretching exercises such as yoga can help to ease constipation in the short term and keep your digestive track running smoothly.
Unfortunately, loading up on high-fiber foods can sometimes initially cause flatulence, or gas. However, this will usually stop as your body adjusts. Also, you can prevent gas once you understand why it occurs in the first place.
Gas can be swallowed or ingested from carbonated drinks, whipping cream, and anywhere else air is incorporated. People who drink from a straw, for example, take in more air than they realize.
One solution is to slow down when you eat. You should avoid foods and beverages that have a lot of incorporated air, like carbonated beverages and chewing gum, to reduce the amount of air that you’re swallowing. Otherwise the air goes into the gut.
Some acidic foods can promote gas formation: spaghetti sauce, citrus fruits, vinegar, and pickles. Sugar alcohols, which are often found in sugar-free foods, are actually fermented in your gut by the bacteria, leading to gas.
Therefore, avoiding these foods can help you prevent flatulence without giving up high-fiber foods. Additionally, drinking plenty of water can reduce flatulence, which—as you now know—can also prevent or relieve constipation.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.