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What to do about constipation?

Written by Diane Archer

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) offers advice on what to do about constipation, a condition virtually all of us face at one time or another. Generally, it’s not serious. Here’s what the NIA recommends doing.

Constipation is not a disease. Rather, it is a symptom. Often people are constipated when they have fewer bowel movements than normal or it takes a lot of time to pass stools, and the stools are hard. Older people are more prone to constipation than younger people.

You should not worry too much if you do not have a bowel movement every day. Some people have bowel movements twice a day and others have bowel movements three times a week. Everyone is different.  For some, it can mean bowel movements twice a day.

To determine whether you are constipated, doctors might have you answer these questions:

  • Do you often have fewer than three bowel movements a week?
  • Is it usually difficult for you to pass stools?
  • Are your stools generally lumpy or hard?
  • Do you feel blocked or as if your bowels are full?

If the answer is no to all of these questions, you likely do not have a constipation issue. If your answer is “yes” to at least one of these questions, you may have a constipation issue. You should talk to your doctor. The doctor can check the cause. You should also talk to your doctor if there is blood in your stool.

Constipation can have a range of causes, including diet, exercise, and use of laxatives. Inactivity can cause of constipation. So can eating a lot of high-fat meats, dairy products and sweet desserts as well as prepared and processed foods that are low-fiber. Excess use of laxatives and enemas also can cause constipation because they can confuse your body.

And, some prescription drugs used for depression and high blood pressure, allergy medicines, antacids and some painkillers can cause constipation. An SSRI, such as Prozac or amitriptyline might be the cause, as might an opioid, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone.

People with stroke, diabetes and irritable bowel syndrome are prone to constipation. Their conditions affect muscles and nerves used for bowel movements. If your doctor finds this is the cause, it may be treatable.

To avoid being constipated, be sure to drink a lot of water and other fluids. Ask your doctor how much liquid you should drink. Eat a lot of high-fiber foods, like vegetables, fruits and grains, either cooked or raw. You can eat dried apricots, prunes and figs as well. Bran could also be helpful.

Change your diet slowly to help ensure your system adapts to the change.

Be active, when possible. Every day you can, move as much as you can. If changes to your diet and exercise don’t help, talk to your doctor. Laxatives are yet another option if all else fails. Different laxatives have different risks and benefits. Talk to your doctor about which might be best for you.

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