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Digestive Dictionary (from NIH)
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USDA Food Guide
Terms and Conditions of Use
What is Constipation?
|Constipation (con-stuh-PAY-shun) means that a
person has three bowel movements or fewer in a week. The stool is hard and
dry. Sometimes it is painful to pass. You may feel "draggy" and
Some people think they should have a bowel movement every day. That is not
really true. While there is no "right" number of bowel movements,
many consider the range of three bowel movents per day to three bowel
movements per week to be normal. Each person's body finds its own normal
number of bowel movements. It depends on the food you eat, how much you
exercise, and other things.
At one time or another almost everyone gets constipated (CON-stuh-pay-ted).
In most cases, it lasts for a short time and is not serious. When you
understand what causes constipation, you can take steps to prevent it.
It is important, however, to pay careful attention to your bowel habits
and changes in them. Rapid and unexplained changes in bowel habits
can be signs of more serious problems. It is very important to
report such changes in your bowel habits to your health care professional
right away, especially if you are beyond the age of forty. The
following helpful hints can be important adjuncts in dealing with
What Can I Do?
|Changing what you eat and drink and how much
you exercise will help relieve and prevent constipation. Here are some
steps you can take.
1. Eat more fiber.
Fiber helps form soft, bulky stool. It is found in many vegetables,
fruits, and grains. Be sure to add fiber a little at a time, so your body
gets used to it slowly. Limit foods that have little or no fiber such as
ice cream, cheese, meat, snacks like chips and pizza, and processed foods
such as instant mashed potatoes or already-prepared frozen dinners. The
following chart shows you some high-fiber foods.
||Breads, Cereals, and Beans
Whole-grain cereal, cold (All-Bran, Total, Bran Flakes)
Whole-grain cereal, hot (oatmeal, Wheatena)
2. Drink plenty of water and other liquids such as fruit and vegetable
juices and clear soup.
Liquid helps keep the stool soft and easy to pass, so it's important to
drink enough fluids. Try not to drink liquids with caffeine or alcohol in
them. Caffeine and alcohol tend to dry out your system.
3. Get enough exercise.
Doctors are not sure why, but regular exercise helps your system stay
active and healthy. You don't need to become a great athlete. A 20- to
30-minute walk every day will do the trick.
4. Allow yourself enough time to have a bowel movement.
Sometimes we feel so hurried that we don't pay attention to our bodies'
needs. Make sure you don't ignore the urge to have a bowel movement.
5. Use laxatives only if a doctor says you should.
Laxatives (LAHK-sa-tivz) are medicines that will make you pass a stool.
Most people who are mildly constipated do not need laxatives. However, if
you are doing all the right things and you are still constipated, your
doctor may recommend laxatives for a limited time.
Your doctor will tell you if you need a laxative and what type is best.
Laxatives come in many forms: liquid, chewing gum, pills, and powder that
you mix with water, for example.
6. Check with your doctor about medicines you may be taking.
Some medicines may cause constipation. They include calcium pills, pain
pills with codeine in them, some antacids, iron pills, diuretics (water
pills), and medicines for depression. If you take medicine for another
problem, be sure to ask your doctor about it.
- Constipation affects almost everyone at one time or another.
- Many people think they are constipated when really they are not.
- In most cases, following these simple tips will help:
- Eat a variety of foods. Eat a lot of beans, bran, whole grains,
fresh fruits, and vegetables.
- Drink plenty of liquids.
- Exercise regularly.
- Do not ignore the urge to have a bowel movement.
- Understand that normal bowel habits are different for everyone.
- If your bowel habits change, check with your doctor.
- Most people with mild constipation do not need laxatives. However,
doctors may recommend laxatives for a limited time for people with
- Medicines you may be taking for another problem can cause