Constipation is the term used to describe difficulty going to the toilet or opening the bowels. We probably all suffer from this for short periods during our lives, but for some it becomes a chronic or recurrent problem.
Some people would regard it as normal to open their bowels three or four times a day, while for others normality would be once a week. Certainly, the human body can function quite well at either extreme, but most people probably open their bowels every day or every couple of days. It is wise not to get obsessed by the need to open the bowels daily, but if you experience a change of bowel habit that persists then you should seek the advice of your doctor.
Change of diet or dehydration and a change of daily schedule may lead to constipation. Certain medications, especially some pain killers, may lead to problems. Sometimes the cause is a bowel disorder, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
Over recent years it has become apparent that people who eat more fibre are less prone to various bowel diseases and also are likely to be healthier in other ways. Fibre tends to diminish transit time (the length of time it takes for something that is eaten to pass right through the system) and thus reduce constipation. Funnily enough, if you take more fibre it will tend to normalize bowel habit, and may well cut down the frequency of motions in somebody tending towards diarrhoea.
In general it is wise to eat small meals often and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as having plenty to drink (one and a half to three litres of fluid daily). Foods containing fibre include brown rice, wholemeal pasta, wholemeal bread, and potatoes with their jackets. It is also wise to take regular exercise or at least remain active. You should not make a habit of putting off the "call of nature", when you feel you need to open your bowels, as this can lead to the body's natural functions becoming more sluggish.
Sometimes people become so constipated that they or their doctor feel that other action is required. There are various medicines to help constipation (laxatives):
- Fibre supplements, which come as powder that makes up a small drink, granules, tablets containing bran or indeed raw bran. (eg Fybogel, Regulan)
- Osmotic laxatives, which act by drawing more fluid into the bowel. (eg Magnesium Hydroxide mixture / Milk of Magnesia, Lactulose)
- Irritative preparations which tend to introduce contractions of the bowel eg Senna.
You may need to use one or more of these together.