Most of us shy away from discussing bowel habits outside the doctor’s office; for some people even inside the doctor’s office is off limits for this topic. Yet, we all poop and most people suffer from constipation at some time or another, so why all the secrecy and reluctance to talk about it? Not good dinner table conversation perhaps, but there’s no reason not to talk about a common problem with a natural function. There’d be less suffering if people shared tips on how to get past constipation.

What is constipation? It is when the solid waste material doesn’t move through and out of the body in a timely manner, or is dry and hard to excrete. Other symptoms include gas, painful bloating, and straining to go or feeling that the bowel movement is not complete. Constipation that lasts for an extended period may lead to hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, or impacted bowels among other risks. Obviously, sudden and severe onset of constipation, especially if blood is present in the stool, or constipation that is not relieved by the usual remedies should be discussed with your medical professional without delay.

I admit to suffering from occasional constipation throughout my life, sometimes worse than others. It can really make a person cranky, to just not feel tip-top because a function that should just happen isn’t working. Speaking of normal, we are unique individuals and our bodies work within the rhythm that is right for each. Other peoples’ natural schedule of bowel movements may not be your natural rhythm. There is no “right” timing or amount; you should respect the signals from your body. That said, not having a bowel movement for a week or even for 4-5 days is a concern and you should be looking into what is going on.

What are some of the causes of occasional episodes of constipation?

  • Overuse of antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
  • Changes in your usual diet or activities, like when on vacation or change in job
  • Consuming a lot of dairy products
  • Eating disorders
  • Not being active
  • Not enough water or fiber in your diet
  • Overuse of laxatives (creates a dependency)
  • Pregnancy
  • Too often ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
  • Some medications (especially strong pain drugs, antidepressants, or iron pills)
  • Excess stress

To avoid occasional bout of constipation, the general recommendations are simple lifestyle changes:

  • Exercise daily, for about 30 minutes. Exercise is essential to regular bowel movements. I find Hatha yoga especially helpful as it massages your internal organs, but a good walk helps too.
  • Drink plenty of water – 1 ½ – 2 quarts per day.
  • Eat plenty of fiber from whole fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole-grain bread and cereal.
  • Cut back on milk and cheeses. Dairy products are constipating for some people, maybe for you.
  • If you take calcium supplements, be sure to get half as much magnesium to counter the sometimes constipating effects of calcium.
  • To relieve stress use a relaxation technique daily, especially meditation or breathing exercises. Stress interferes with relaxation of the whole body, including the bowels.
  • Don’t ignore the urge to go. Peristalsis of the bowel is the movements that trigger a bowel movement. If you ignore the urge, the opportunity may pass and lead to stool backing up
  • Do not use caffeine as a laxative. While coffee and other forms of caffeine may work as laxatives when used occasionally, when used regularly for this purpose caffeine, like the constant use of laxatives, prevents the bowels from following their own natural rhythm.
  • Don’t smoke. Nicotine affects the bowel in the same manner as caffeine.
  • Avoid constipating drugs if you can. The most common are opiates, diuretics, anti-depressants, and anti-histamines, among others.

There now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Simple talk about what is often a simple problem with easy solutions. Hopefully you do not need this information often; if you do a health coach may be able to help reduce that need.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

20150115_got milkI love whole milk yogurt, plain, no sugar, honey, or fruit. I love cheese – cheddar, swiss, brie. Once upon a time I loved a glass of cold milk with brownies. Or cookies. Or pie.

At some point as I passed 40, I realized that I had digestive issues. Cramps, bloating, constipation. I couldn’t pin it on beans, or cabbage, or eggs – usual suspects for some. I stopped eating meat for a time; didn’t help. Drank more water, helped a bit. Went to the doctor, whose answer was some new drug for IBS. (Now, IBS is not a disease or a condition but a collection of symptoms. Why was a drug invented? How about getting to the root cause of the symptoms? But, I digress…) So, I went to my friend Google and started reading. Now, one can find all sorts of illnesses on the Internet with symptoms such as one has. So you have to be smart about this kind of thing and not get sucked into hypochondria! But my reading pointed to a condition I had never thought about, since I had consumed cow’s milk all my life. Lactose intolerance. Often comes on as one ages, and I had done some of that. Hmmmm, seemed a simple enough experiment – give up milk and all variations of milk (did I mention I also love ice cream and frozen custard) for a month.

So I bought some organic soy milk and found some other substitutes for essential “milk” needs – cheese on pizza for instance. Felt better after about a week and a half, and never looked back. Oh, I cheat now and then – sometimes it’s easier to eat the unexpected cheese on the salad or at a friend’s dinner. For me, the occasional bit of cow’s milk is tolerable. For others, it can mean a miserable few hours or day.

I have switched to an organic and unsweetened almond milk from the soy. I like it as well on cereral and in baking, but find it works better for a “milk” gravy or savory dish. I prefer Whole Foods organic 365 brand as it does not contain carrageenan, an allowed but controversial additive in many foods. For cheese I have tried several soy-based products and liked Soy Kaas the best, but find little information on their ingredients and am concerned about GMOs in their products. Many varieties of ice cream replacements are on the market, but do watch the sugar content there. Just because it’s non-dairy doesn’t mean it’s healthy!! Also available are rice milk, oat milk, hemp milk – some plain, some flavored. Each has its place.

If you find that you have similar digestive issues (many who are lactose intolerant get diarrhea, not constipation) try avoiding ALL dairy products for at least two weeks, preferably four. Watch for milk and milk derivatives in processed foods if you aren’t cooking for yourself. See if your symptoms abate with this hiatus; if so, you’ll want to continue to avoid dairy as much as possible.

In addition, people who suffer from a lot of sinus drainage, colds, and/or other Ear/nose/throat issues might try avoiding milk products. Studies and articles are quite divided on the subject of whether milk causes excess mucus production or if it thickens the mucus already present. I found no conclusive evidence either way, so I think it’s best to experiment for yourself. If avoiding milk helps you, then that is the answer for you!