Constipation 101

How to Avoid Constipation

Learn helpful hints for what you can do to avoid constipation in the first place, like what to eat and drink, staying active, and how to recognize warning signs of constipation.

Get more fibre

Part of healthy eating means a diet with plenty of fibre. Our bodies cannot actually digest fibre, and certain types work in our gut to keep stool soft enough that it passes efficiently, without pain or strain. Insoluble fibre has been shown to play a role in preventing constipation because it helps to increase the bulk or weight of the stool and helps the stool pass more quickly. While wheat bran is the food most studied with respect to preventing constipation, other sources of insoluble fibre include vegetables and whole grains (such as brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, and whole grain breads and cereals). Another common type of fibre is soluble fibre and includes beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits with skin, psyllium (ispaghula husk), dried fruits and some vegetables. Soluble fibre attracts water in the intestine, turning to a gel and slowing the passage of stool through the gut. It is best to include both insoluble and soluble fibre in a healthy diet to help maintain stool consistency, regularity and overall gut function.

In order for a fibre supplement to play a role in the prevention of constipation, it must resist fermentation to remain intact in the gut and increase water content of the stool to soften or bulk stools. Coarse wheat bran and psyllium meet these criteria. Wheat bran does not ferment, and psyllium is slowly fermented. Psyllium also increases water content of the stool because it is a gel-forming fibre that attracts water. Inulin passes through your small intestine and is fermented by the bacteria in your large intestine.

When making changes to fibre intake via food or supplements, do so gradually to let your body adjust at a comfortable pace. Increase water intake as well to ensure proper hydration.

Stay hydrated

Getting enough water each day is very important for preventing constipation. We’ve all heard that eight glasses of water a day is the goal, but healthy hydration is not so cut-and-dried. First, fluids from all sources count: water first and foremost, as well as fruits and vegetable juices, broth-based soups, coffee, tea and milk. Second, each person is unique, so you may need a bit more or less. The easiest way to know if you’re well-hydrated is to check that your urine is pale yellow, never dark yellow or brown. Now that you’ve had a good giggle, drink up!

Use these helpful tips to help make sure you’re staying hydrated:

  • Sip water or other beverages made mostly of water throughout the day.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol, as it dehydrates the body.
  • Eat foods full of water, like melons, berries and fresh vegetables.
  • When you exercise, especially in hot or humid conditions, be conscious of replacing the water you lose through sweat.
  • Watch out for the classic signs of dehydration, like dry mouth, dark urine, headaches and cramping.

Check your menu

All foods have a time and place in a normal eating pattern, but fresh whole foods should be the foundation of a healthy diet. Focus on getting enough plants (whole grains, fruits and vegetables). This will go a long way to ensuring that you get enough fibre and fluids in your foods.

Balance activity and rest

Support healthy digestion with a healthy balance of activity and rest. Physical activity helps by both reducing stress and directly reducing constipation. Healthy sleep habits reduce stress, regulate appetite and make it easier to be active during the day. Finally, the simple act of responding to the urge to have a bowel movement may make it easier to do so over time. Listen to your body and make sure it gets the attention it needs on a regular schedule.

How do I know if there is a problem?

The frequency of bowel movements will vary from person to person, with some experiencing them every day while others only every one to two days. This is not necessarily abnormal, assuming there hasn’t been a sudden change to your normal frequency of bowel movements. However, if you are experiencing difficulty passing stool, a reduced number of bowel movements, hardness of stool, or feeling that you have not completely finished a bowel movement when you leave the bathroom, these are areas that may need to be addressed with your doctor using the information discussed above.

References: Bharucha AE et al. Gatroenterology. 2013;144:218-238. Bliss DZ et al. J Agric Food Chem. 2013;61:4614-21. Eswaran S. et al. Am J Gastroenterol. 2013;108:718-727. Kapadia SA et al. JPEN J Parenter Enteral Nutr. 1995;19:63-8. Lampe JW et al. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1992;1:207-11. McRorie J, Fahey G. Chapter 8: Fiber supplements and clinically meaningful health benefits: identifying the physiochemical characteristics of fiber that drive specific physiologic effects. In: Wallace TC, ed. The CRC Handbook on Dietary Supplements in Health Promotion. Florence, KY: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group LLC; 2015. ISBN:9781482210347. McRorie J. Nutr Today. 2015;50:90-97. McRorie JW et al. Dig Dis Sci. 2016;61:3140-3146. Staniforth DH et al. J Int Med Res. 1991;19:228-33. Tomlin J, Read N. Br J Nutr. 1988;60:467-475.

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