Understand and take control of your constipation
What is constipation?
Constipation is a common condition that can affect people of all ages. It can mean that you’re not passing stools regularly, or you’re having difficulty passing them.1 Or you may even feel an uncomfortable fullness even after you’ve had a bowel movement.2
Constipation affects everybody differently. It can make your stools hard and lumpy, or unusually large or small.
You are probably having constipation if:3
- You have bowel movements fewer than 3 times in a week
- Your stools are often difficult to push out and larger than usual
- Your stools are often dry, hard or lumpy
You may also have stomach ache and feel bloated or sick.1
Constipation isn’t just about frequency. In fact, many doctors consider factors such as the shape, texture and consistency of stools to be the best way to assess bowel functionality. Your doctor may use a simple scale to measure your stool consistency called the Bristol Stool Scale4 You can download a copy here.
Constipation usually is not a serious condition5 – but speak to your doctor if you have any concern.
DID YOU KNOW?
Constipation is one of the most common medical conditions, affecting up to 1 in 3 people.5
What causes constipation?
Constipation usually happens when stool have been in the bowel for too long, and water from them is re-absorbed by the body.
This can make the stool hard and dry, and difficult to pass.1
There are many things that can cause constipation in adults. Sometimes there’s no obvious reason for it.3
The most common causes include:3
- Not eating enough fiber – such as fruit, vegetables and cereals
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not exercising enough
- Ignoring the urge to go to the toilet – sometimes referred to as ‘withholding’
- Changing your diet or daily routine
- Stress, anxiety or depression
Certain medications are known to cause constipation. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking any other medicines that may explain your symptoms.
In much rarer cases, constipation may be caused by a medical condition.3
Constipation is common in new mums and mums-to-be.
Can stress cause constipation?
Thoughts and emotions that are triggered by stress are thought to have an impact on your digestive system and may contribute towards constipation. This is thought to be a result of the way in which your brain and gut work together, known as the brain-gut axis.6
There may be times when you can’t help feeling stressed, but there are things you can do to try and deal with stress better,
– Talk to family or friends about things that are worrying you
– Try increasing the amount of exercise
– Download some mindfulness or relaxation apps
– Make more time for your hobbies and interests
– Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
– Make sure you eat a healthy diet
Travel and constipation
A change of routine, such as being on holiday with a different diet and time zone, and using facilities in public places, can affect your bowel habits.8
This can make travelling a challenge when you’re constipated. But there are many things you can do to help keep you comfortable.
Drink plenty of water.
Not drinking enough fluids can make constipation worse, so make sure you have plenty of clear liquids to drink.9 It’s best to avoid alcohol and caffeinated drinks (such as coke or coffee) as these can dehydrate you.1
Fill up on fiber-rich snacks.
Eating healthily can be tricky when you’re on-the-go, as it’s easy to reach for low-fiber convenience food. This can make constipation worse.1 Instead, try to carry high-fiber snacks with you such as dried fruit, cereal bars, popcorn, and unsalted nuts. Choose healthy meals with plenty of fresh vegetables when possible.
Try to stay active.
If you have a long journey by plane, train or car, make sure you set time aside to get up, stretch and have a walk around. This can help to keep your digestive system moving.9
Try and stick to a routine.
Where possible, try and stick to your usual meal and sleep times. Eating soon after you wake up can also be beneficial.10 If you usually use the toilet at a certain time of day, try and stick to that too. 30 minutes after a meal is usually a good time.8
Listen to your body.
Don’t ignore your body’s signals, as this can make constipation worse.1 Try to make sure you always know where the nearest toilets are so you can go over there if you need to.
If you’ve had problems with constipation while travelling before, or if you’re already experiencing constipation, it might help to start taking medication ahead of time.
Lifestyle changes can help with constipation
Our busy lifestyles can play a role in constipation, with many contributing factors.
If constipation is interfering with your life, don’t worry.
There are plenty of things you can do to help.
The first thing you should do is to make some simple changes, such as:
Make changes to your diet1
- Includes enough fiber in your diet can keep your bowel movements more regular by helping food pass through your gut more quickly
- Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration. Try to cut down on the amount of alcohol, caffeine and fizzy drinks you consume.
Increase your activity1
- A daily walk or run can help ease constipation. And there are many other health benefits because exercise can help make you feel healthier and it may improve your mood, energy levels and general fitness.
Improve your toilet routine
- Try to keep to a regular time and place and give yourself plenty of time to use the toilet. 30 minutes after eating a meal is usually a good time to go.8
- Don’t ignore the urge to go as this can make constipation worse.1
- Try resting your feet on a low footstool while going to the toilet. If you can, raise your knees above your hips. Relax and breathe normally, tighten your stomach muscles and push down whilst trying to relax your back passage.8
If these lifestyle changes aren’t helping, treatment is available. Consult your doctor or pharmacist for more information.
1. NHS Inform. Constipation. Preventing constipation. https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/stomach-liver-and-gastrointestinal-tract/constipation#preventing-constipation. Accessed 12 Nov 2019.
2. Information from your family Doctor. Constipation. Am Fam Physician. 2010;15:82(12):1440-1441.
3. NHS. Constipation. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/constipation/. Accessed 12 Nov 2019.
4. Lewis SJ, et al. Stool form scale as a useful guide to intestinal transit time. Scand J Gastroenterol. 1997 Sep;32(9):920-4.
5. Cullen G, O’Donoghue D. Constipation and pregnancy. Best Pract Res Clin Gastroenterol 2007; 21(5): 807-18
6. Devanarayana, NM and Rajindrajith S, Association between Constipation and Stressful Life Events in a Cohort of Sri Lankan Children and Adolescents. J Trop Ped. 2010;56(3):144-8.
7. NHS. How to deal with stress. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-stress/. Accessed 2 Oct 2019.
8. Healthy bowel guide: Information for patients. Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. April 2015. https://www.cnwl.nhs.uk/wp-content/uploads/Healthy_Bowel-_Patient_Information_leaflet.pdf Accessed 12 Nov 2019.
9. Arnaud MJ. Mild dehydration: a risk factor of constipation? Eur J Clin Nutr. 2003;57(2):S88-S95.
10. Hayat U, et al. Chronic constipation: Update on management. Clev Clin J Med. 2017;84(5):397-408