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Constipation is generally described as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. Chronic constipation is infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools that persists for several weeks or longer.


Western diets – low in fruit, vegetables and whole grains – coupled with lack of physical activity, has made constipation a common problem. Regular bowel movements indicate a healthy bowel and reduce the risk of large bowel disease, particularly cancer of the colon.


Complications of chronic constipation include:

  • Swollen veins in your anus (haemorrhoids). Straining to have a bowel movement may cause swelling in the veins in and around the anus.
  • Torn skin in the anus (anal fissure). A large or hard stool can cause tiny tears in the anus.
  • Stool that can't be expelled (faecal impaction). Chronic constipation may cause an accumulation of hardened stool that gets stuck in your intestines.
  • Intestine that protrudes from the anus (rectal prolapse). Straining to have a bowel movement can cause a small amount of the rectum to stretch and protrude from the anus.

Fibre and certain forms of starch ferment in the large bowel. They provide the bulk that activates the colon muscles to drive digested food through the gut. Compounds in certain foods such as coffee, rhubarb and prunes have the same effect.


Drink at least 1.7 litres of water. A low fibre diet aggravated by low water intake dries and hardens the food in the colon, obstructing movement. This causes pressure and discomfort in the bowel. The longer the food remains in the bowel, the more water is reabsorbed from it. It gets harder and more difficult to pass.


Regular physical activity helps simulate bowel movements. Long periods of inactivity (sitting) can cause constipation.


Habitually delaying defecation can lead to constipation.


Long term usage of laxatives can interfere with the functioning of the colon. Use laxatives as infrequently as possible.


Dietary Advice
Consume at least 18g of fibre. Soluble fibre helps regulate blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels. Insoluble fibre helps prevent constipation by acting as a bulking agent in the gut. Increase your fibre intake gradually to prevent negative effects.


Have plenty of fruit, green leafy vegetables, wholegrain cereals and wholemeal bread for insoluble fibre. Add bran to yogurt or cereal, but remember that without adequate liquid intake, bran can get blocked in the gut.


Avoid refined carbohydrates (white bread and white rice) as well as copious quantities of sugar and oily foods.

 

 
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