We can all agree that healthy bowel movements make for happy people. But unless you’re having dinner with a digestive health junkie like me, constipation just doesn’t make for great dinner conversation despite it being a very common occurrence, across all life stages.
Breaking the poo taboo
- According to CDHF, 1 in 4 Canadians has symptoms of constipation.
- Prevalence rates for women are almost twice as high as for men in Canada and North America.
- Constipation can greatly affect quality of life and productivity
Too cool for stool
Constipation happens when the muscle contractions in the colon become slow, causing the stool to become dry and difficult to pass. This is usually brought on by inactivity, a lack of fibre in the diet, travel, insufficient water intake, medication, lifestyle changes like pregnancy or ageing, diseases like hypothyroid syndrome or diabetes, laxative abuse or a functional GI disorder like IBS.
Constipation: What’s “normal?”
Most people think constipation has to do with how often you go, but that isn’t always the case. “Normal” can range from three bowel movements per day to every two days (although a daily bowel movement is a healthy and happy target). Since everybody is different, consistency of the stool has shown to be the best indicator of intestinal transit time (i.e. how fast/slow things are moving along the GI tract).
Here are some symptoms of slower transit time and constipation:
- The stool is difficult to pass, with straining required
- The stool is dry, hard or in separate small lumps rather than sausage-shaped and smooth
- A sense of “unfinished business”
- Abdominal gas, cramping or bloating
Tips to prevent constipation
When nature calls, answer.
Body awareness is key to good health. Your ability to tune-in to your body’s cues and act on what its saying is the difference between feeling good and feeling great. So let’s get body basics right, shall we?
Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement is one of the biggest mistakes people make because, over time, it can slow the movement of food through your intestine and cause constipation. Delaying also causes more water to be absorbed from your stool making it dryer and harder to pass.
If your schedule interferes with your body’s cue, consider making some changes. For instance, calming morning routines lend themselves better to healthy bowel movements than do frantic, rushed mornings. Consider waking up before the chaos and easing into the morning with a warm tea. You can also get into the routine of trying to “go” 20 or so minutes after you’ve had breakfast. When food enters your stomach it simultaneously moves things along in your lower intestine as well. But if the urge doesn’t come naturally to you, you may need to create the habit, by sitting and waiting.
Tip: For an evening bowel movement have my prune and chia jam to go-go or any constipation-relieving foods in the AM. For a morning bowel movement, have it in the PM.
Eat a diet rich in high-fibre whole foods
Fibre is an undigestible component of plants that helps to add bulk to our stool. It mops-up water making stool softer and quicker to pass. So if you’re dealing with constipation, ramping-up the fibre content in your diet is a good strategy. Sources of fibre include fresh fruit, vegetables with their skin, pulses, intact grains (think oats, quinoa, farro) nuts and seeds.
Related: Constipation-friendly recipe: Prune and chia jam to go-go.
Some of my favourite foods for constipation relief:
- Ripe apples or pears (with the skin)
- Green Kiwi
- Swiss chard
- Chia seeds
Tip: Increase your fibre intake slowly to give your gut bacteria time to adjust to the new load. This will minimize associated gas or discomfort.
Drinking plenty of fluids is important to make your stool easy to pass.
Tip: Consider drinking an additional glass of water with each high-fibre meal and snack of the day.
Stress and anxiety can cause us to delay bowel movements, resulting in constipation and may also suppress the reflex that triggers the urge to go. This is why managing chronic stress in your life and finding ways to relax are key to happy bowel movements.
My favourite laxative of all…exercise. Regular movement helps to stimulate intestinal function and also reduce intestinal transit time. The key is to make it part of your daily routine. It doesn’t have to be high intensity, just consistent. Aim for 30 minutes every day.
You can aid your bowel movement if you assume the right position. Using a squatty potty or even just a small step to prop your feet and elevate your knees can make the world of a difference. Try it!
When tackling constipation, these lifestyle changes should always be your first course of action. If however you’ve implemented all of the changes above and do not see any progress, there are other relief options, from bulking agents, to probiotics, to magnesium, to laxatives, but you’ll want to speak to your dietitian or doctor to determine the one best suited for you.
Looking for additional support? Book an appointment with an MN dietitian today, we’d be happy to help!
- Constipation. U.S. National Library of Medecine
- Russo M, Martinelli M, Sciorio E, Botta C, Miele E, Vallone G, Staiano A. Stool Consistency, but Not Frequency, Correlates with Total Gastrointestinal Transit Time in Children.
- Understanding the prevalence and impact of constipation. Canadian Digestive Health Foundation.