What Is Constipation?

Kerry Beeson BSc (Nut. Med.) Nutritional Therapist

Many people will suffer from constipation at some time in their lives, affecting men and women as well as children and babies. **(A 2018 review of published global studies in to the prevalence of constipation worldwide, estimated the average prevalence of constipation in adults to be 16%. For adults over the age of 60 years this rises sharply to 33.5%. Wide differences were observed in different geographical areas, dependent on factors such as: diet, socioeconomic status, medications taken etc.[1])** Generally, the elderly are much more likely to experience periods of constipation. Women are more likely to suffer too, up to twice as much as men, and interestingly, nearly half of pregnant women will suffer from constipation during their pregnancy. Find out more about the gut and pregnancy over on our sister site, the Probiotics Learning Lab.

woman clenching her tummy

Constipation can take various forms and mean different things to different people. Either your stools could be small, hard and difficult to pass so you find yourself straining, or bowel movements might become infrequent and irregular. Others can experience a sense of incomplete emptying after a bowel movement. Constipation can be mild and temporary, with no lasting impact on your health. However, sometimes it can become long-term, or chronic, leading to other problems like faecal impaction, where the stool hardens in the rectum and prevents passage, or faecal incontinence.

It’s important to remember that everybody’s natural bowel habits are different, and there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ frequency. Some people go three times a week, and some people might go three times a day. However, what is normal is that you’re consistent and regular, and when you do go, that you don’t need to strain more than usual. All you have to do is listen to your body, and you’ll know whether your unique rhythm has changed.

woman holding tummy

Definition

Medically speaking, the following criteria are usually used to define the term constipation:

  • Produce fewer than three stools per week
  • Pass hard or lumpy stools in 25% of bowel movements
  • Have to strain with 25% of bowel movements
  • Feel that you haven’t emptied your bowel fully on every occasion
  • Feel that you may have an obstruction with some bowel movements

Looking at how the bowel actually works is really quite fascinating. When the stomach and intestines have absorbed all the nutrients from the food we eat, the remaining indigestible parts collect in the colon, where the gut absorbs large amounts of water (up to 1 litre a day). What should be left at the end is soft brown stool, which is then moved slowly towards the rectum with a series of muscular movements, normally referred to as peristalsis, and excreted from the body as waste.

The most common form of constipation is caused when these muscular movements slow down or become sluggish. The waste will spend longer in the colon, where it becomes dryer and harder, making it increasingly difficult and possibly painful to pass.

Some of the best ways to naturally deal with constipation include:

  • Ensuring you are fully hydrated each day - drinking plenty of water
  • Eat enough fibre
  • Keep active & exercise more
  • Take a probiotic and/or prebiotic supplement
  • Try taking a herbal remedy (like Barberry)

References

  1. Chronic Constipation: A review of the literature. Medicine (Baltimore) 2018: May.