All blocked up: Dealing with constipation

Constipation is more common as we get older. That’s because many of the body’s processes slow down — including our digestive system.

But that doesn’t mean that constipation has to be a fact of older life. There are steps you can take to limit the effects and keep things running smoothly.

Read on for a look at the condition and some tips on how to prevent it and treat it.

Defining constipation

Let’s first put a definition with constipation. It isn’t just having a day where you don’t have any bowel movements. It is generally defined as having three or fewer bowel movements in the course of a week.

What’s normal when it comes to bowel movements is different for every person. So, you may be experiencing constipation even if you don’t meet that specific definition mentioned above, particularly if you usually go frequently.

The symptoms of constipation

While having bowel movements less frequently is the most obvious symptom of constipation, there are others.

If a person is constipated, he or she may:

  • Have hard, dry or oddly shaped stools
  • Have a difficult or painful time passing stool
  • Experience a persistent feeling of needing to “go”

Some symptoms, though, indicate that what you might think is constipation may actually be something more serious. Seek medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms along with constipation:

  • Blood in your stool
  • Constant abdominal pain
  • An inability to pass gas
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Lower back pain
  • Weight loss

The causes of constipation

Like with many medical conditions, constipation can be caused by multiple things. Constipation is primarily caused by the slow movement of stool through the colon, but can also be caused by delayed emptying of the colon or some gastrointestinal conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome.

Some common medications, including antacids, diuretics and antidepressants, can lead to constipation by drying out the body and/or slowing down the body’s processes.

You may also find yourself experiencing constipation if your normal daily routine is disrupted, such as when you travel or change what you’re eating or drinking.

6 tips for avoiding & easing constipation

No matter the cause, no one wants to experience constipation. It can be just plain uncomfortable.

We have some tips for avoiding constipation in the first place — and easing it once it occurs:

  1. Drink plenty of water. Fluids help everything move smoothly through the digestive system, ultimately ridding the body of waste. Fluid intake is especially important during the summer months when the temperatures are high — the risk of dehydration and heat stroke are high among older adults. Sip water continuously throughout the day, and drink even more if you’re outside for any length of time.
  2. Eat plenty of fiber. This doesn’t have to mean taking a fiber supplement, but it can if you aren’t getting enough in your diet. Usually, though, if you make a conscious effort, you can get plenty of fiber through the foods you eat. Fruits, veggies and whole grains are all excellent sources of dietary fiber. An added bonus of sorts? Stool is largely made up of bacteria — and bacteria and fiber are good friends. So, eating plenty of fiber will ensure your bowel is functioning properly.
  3. Exercise regularly. Can’t figure out the connection between exercise and your bowel? Regular physical activity has been shown to keep the entire body running efficiently — and that includes your digestive system and your bowel.
  4. Consider a probiotic. If you have regular issues with constipation, you may find taking a probiotic supplement or eating foods fortified with probiotics These shift the composition of bacteria in the gut, which may help move things through.
  5. Carve out bathroom time. This one may sound weird, but how often do you try to rush through a trip to the restroom? Try eating a healthy breakfast to start out your day, which can stimulate the bowels, then make time for a stop in the bathroom.
  6. Avoid sudden changes to your diet. If you’ve been eating an unhealthy diet, you may think that changing up your eating habits is a good thing. And it is! But make those changes gradually — your body needs to become accustomed to new habits, even when they’re good ones.

If you’re experiencing frequent or painful constipation, talk with your doctor. He or she can determine if an underlying issue is to blame and offer tips and treatment. Find a doctor here.