Having a bowel movement may not seem like a significant event to many people but for a person who is constipated it can be difficult and at times even excruciating. It is estimated that about 15% of the American population is constipated and for those with severe constipation, the search for means and methods to facilitate a regular and easier bowel movement is ongoing, often for months and even years or decades.
Difficulty Passing Stool
Constipation is defined by the difficulty in passing stool, which is often hard and having less than three bowel movements in a week. These definitions do not often illustrate the difficulty that some constipated people may experience on a daily basis. Even though stool may not be passed daily, there is an ongoing discomfort in the rectum and sometimes even the non-stop urging to pass stool despite being unable to do so.
Therefore constipation can impact a person adversely, beyond just bowel health. A multi-pronged approach to constipation is usually advised. In many instances constipation is chronic. Even with medication, the relief is only temporary. Therefore an ongoing dietary and lifestyle management program is necessary. This has to be continued in the long term even once the constipation subsides and normal bowel habit returns.
There are a number of different causes of constipation which varies from dietary and lifestyle factors to hormonal imbalances, nerve abnormalities and bowel problems. Identifying the root cause and treating it accordingly is the ideal approach to managing constipation. However, in many cases the exact cause of constipation cannot be identified and it is believed to be due to a disturbance in normal physiology rather than a pathology (disease). This is termed as functional constipation.
Read more on causes of constipation.
Some of the more common causes includes:
- Inadequate water consumption.
- Poor dietary fiber intake.
- Sedentary lifestyle.
- Bowel wall and surrounding muscles – weakening or inability for muscles to relax.
- Dysfunction of the nerves that control and coordinate activity of the bowel wall muscles.
- Hormonal alterations including pregnancy, hypothyroidism and long term diabetes mellitus.
Other causes like bowel obstruction due to growths, cancers or strictures (narrowing of the bowel) are less common but also need to be considered. However, most cases of constipation are termed idiopathic because the exact cause is unknown.
Remedies for Easy Bowel Movements
Although infrequent bowel movements is a characteristic feature of constipation, many people are at times concerned with the difficulty in passing stool and the hardness of the feces. This can make defecation a long and painful process when it does occur. There are a number of different medical options for easier bowel movements such as fiber supplements, stool softeners, laxatives and an enema at the extreme end.
However, dietary and lifestyle changes should first be implemented and continued throughout life. Even if a person is not constipated, these dietary and lifestyle measures can help to maintain good bowel habit and bowel health. It also has other health benefits and should therefore be part of every person’s life, not only those who are suffering with constipation.
The dietary remedies advised for easy bowel movements is well known and often a matter of common sense. It has to be implemented and maintained on a daily basis and not only when a bowel movement needs to be encouraged.
- Drink plenty of water. Adults should consume approximately 2 liters (68 ounces) of water daily. This water intake is also dependent on level of physical activity as well as environmental conditions. For example more water will be needed when physically active or living in hot environments.
- Consume fresh fruit and vegetables. These foods should be abundant in the daily diet, constituting at least half the volume of food consumed. The fiber within fruit and vegetables helps with more frequent bowel movements and softer stools. In addition, fresh fruit and vegetables have other health benefits.
- Choose high fiber foods. Apart from fruit and vegetables, there are a number of other high fiber foods that can be considered for meal time and snacks. Bran cereal and bran muffins are two such examples. Read more on this list of high fiber foods.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Both these substances increase urine output and as a result increase the likelihood of dehydration. It can therefor contribute to constipation. Water intake has to be increased if these substances are used on a daily basis.
The lifestyle measures to ensure easy bowel movements has to be part of daily activity. Short term implementation of these measures may not be as effective. It is important to have a doctor approve any workout prior to starting the programs, especially in people who are considered high risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Workout five days a week. Ideally a person should ensure 120 to 150 minutes of exercise weekly. This would involve working out for at least 30 minutes a day for 5 days in a week. Apart from helping with bowel habit, regular exercise has a host of health benefits.
- Try gentle ab exercises. Abdominal exercises like crunches and leg lifts can help with stimulating bowel movements. Avoid ab exercises in the event of contraindications like an abdominal hernia unless a doctor approves the activity. Also consider Kegel exercises.
- Reduce sitting time. A sedentary lifestyle is linked to constipation. While a dedicated workout program is advisable, physical activity on an ongoing basis is equally important. Modern life means long periods of sitting. Try to be more active by walking as often as possible, even if it is not a complete workout.
- Start bowel training. Establishing a regular bowel habit will require some degree of bowel training. This can be as simple as doing some mild exercise and then sitting on the toilet around the same time daily. For more severe cases it may be necessary to insert a finger to relax the anal sphincter muscles.
- Respond to urges. Do not ignore the urge to pass stool. Sometimes the situation may be inconvenient but until proper bowel training ensures movements at a more convenient time, it is important to attempt to defecate when the urging is present.