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Understanding constipation

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Before discussing constipation, we’ll explain how the bowel works. 

The bowel removes solid waste left over from what you eat. Fibre in the food you eat bulks out this waste and helps move it along your bowel more easily. Everyone has a different ‘normal’ when it comes to the frequency of bowel movements (poos or stools). Some healthy people may pass one to three soft bowel motions per day, whereas others may only pass one bowel motion every second day.

Constipation occurs when bowel motions become more difficult to pass or less frequent than usual. Stools can be hard and dry and may be painful to pass.

Other symptoms of constipation can include:

  • Bloating
  • Flatulence (wind)
  • Headache
  • Haemorrhoids (piles) from straining
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stomach cramps

The causes of constipation

Eating fibre, or ‘roughage’, helps move waste along and helps keep the bowel healthy. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruit will generally give you enough fibre to have regular, easy bowel motions. Drinking plenty of water and other fluids also contributes to easy bowel motions. If you eat a lot of meat, or processed and refined foods, there might not be enough fibre in your bowel. And if you don’t drink enough, there won’t be enough fluid within your bowel to soften your stools, making your motions harder and difficult to pass.

Constipation can also be caused by:

  • An underlying nerve or bowel problem
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Emotional stress
  • Hormonal problems such as an underactive thyroid gland
  • Pregnancy
  • Prolonged periods of immobility
  • Taking certain medicines – especially some painkillers, or using laxatives for too long
  • Travel or other changes in your routine
  • In children – potty training

Have a talk with your Unichem Pharmacist or doctor if your bowel habits change.

Managing constipation

Constipation can usually be relieved by some simple lifestyle changes:

  • Be physically active
  • Drink more fluids, especially water – at least 6 glasses a day 
  • Increase your fibre intake by eating more wholegrain cereals, brown rice, fresh vegetables and fruit, including the skins if they’re edible
  • Prunes, broccoli, rhubarb, kiwifruit, corn, dried fruits and liquorice can all help move your bowels
  • Don’t delay bowel motions – go to the toilet when you feel the urge
  • Avoid straining or forcing a bowel motion, as this can cause haemorrhoids (piles)

If none of these lifestyle changes work, laxatives can help treat the immediate problem. Laxatives come in different forms such as tablets, powders, granules, liquids, and enemas. There are also different types of laxatives including stool softeners, fibre products and bowel stimulants and they work in different ways and within certain times from a few minutes to a few days.

Your Unichem Pharmacist will be able to advise on the appropriate product for you depending on the likely cause of your constipation, how bad your symptoms are and how long you have had them.

Monitor your laxative intake carefully because overuse can be habit-forming. Once the constipation has cleared, stop taking the laxative and try other remedies, like diet and physical activity, to prevent the constipation from returning.

When to see your doctor

A change in bowel movements may be the sign of another illness. See your doctor if:

  • You have constipation for a week or more after a normal bowel motion
  • There is blood or mucous in your motions
  • Your bowel motions change colour
  • You also have severe abdominal pain or bloating
  • You are still constipated after changing your diet or trying other remedies
  • Some days you have constipation, followed by diarrhoea on other days
  • You are losing weight without trying
  • You have a fever
  • You find yourself using laxatives continually
Tania – Pharmacist, Unichem Albany Metro, Auckland