Digestive Discomfort & Getting Things Moving
It may not be a particularly glamorous topic to talk about, but we can all agree that constipation can be annoying, frustrating and at times, particularly painful. The good news is that constipation can usually be easily treated through some simple lifestyle changes, with relief arriving as soon as just a few hours. We’re speaking with Dietitian Rachel Scoular to lift the lid on this not-so-pleasant bathroom behaviour.
What is constipation?
Constipation describes a lack of regular bowel movements as well as difficulty with evacuation of stools. It is associated with a range of symptoms including hard stools, straining, abdominal discomfort and bloating. Constipation is more common in older adults and women, due to hormonal changes which can affect bowel motility – the time it takes for our bodies to digest food and excrete the waste products, or stools. This strong hormonal link also means pregnant women are often more prone to constipation.
Whilst you are reading this, you may be wondering what is and isn’t ‘normal’ and just how regular is regular. Well, ‘normal’ can range anywhere from three times a day to three times a week. There are so many factors which affect the frequency of bowel movements, so if you fall within these guidelines, and pass stools quite easily, things may well be just fine. What is not normal is any regular pain or difficulty with passing stools.
Tips for managing constipation
There are three key factors which have been found to assist with constipation management;
Fibre: Dietary Fibre is essential for good gut health and preventing digestive discomfort. The recommended dietary intake of fibre for most Australians is roughly 25g-30g per day. Insoluble fibre (found in wholegrains, legumes, fruit and vegetables) can be particularly helpful in treating constipation as they add bulk to stools and help to keep us regular. Some of the easiest ways to increase our intake of insoluble fibre include; choosing wholegrains over white refined grains (swapping white rice for brown, choosing grainy brown breads and wholemeal pasta), adding a can of legumes when preparing dinners and keeping the skin on fruit and vegetables – so throw out that vegetable peeler! If you are not currently eating enough fibre, aim to gradually increase your intake instead over a number of days, this will help prevent the feeling of bloating which can be associated with a rapid increase of fibre consumption.
Fluid: Not drinking enough water is one of the most common causes of constipation. When dehydrated, there is less water for the fibre in your colon to absorb, resulting in stools which are much firmer and harder to pass. Our faeces are largely made up of water, at roughly 75%. To help create soft, pleasant to pass stools, aim for a minimum of two litres of fluid per day. This includes drinking water, but also other fluids such as tea, coffee, juice and sparkling water.
Exercise: Regular exercise can help to increase movement along our digestive tract and help to move the contents of our bowels along (and then out!). There is no need to engage in overly strenuous exercise, instead aim for regular movement throughout the day and avoiding overly long periods of sitting down, known as sedentary time.
3 Foods to assist with constipation
- Kiwi Fruit absorbs about three times its weight in water, meaning it makes stools softer and increases volume
by boosting the water content of our stools. Kiwi Fruits are high in complex carbohydrates, dietary fibre and
vitamin C. Consuming two Kiwi Fruits a day can have a very positive effect on bowel health.
- Psyllium Husk forms a soft gel when digested, causing softer stools. Psyllium is the main ingredient in the popular supplement Metamucil. It can also be purchased from the health food section of grocery stores, and
then added to breakfast cereal, yoghurt and rolled oats.
- Prunes are dried plums, and are often called ‘nature’s laxative!’ Prunes contain a large amount of sorbitol, a
complex carbohydrate which can trigger and increase in bowel movements once digested. Consider adding 2-3 to your breakfast for a fibre hit. If you aren’t a fan of prune juice, you can also find sorbitol in a lot of artificially sweetened products, such as “sugar-free” chewing gum and lollies.
Other factors contributing to digestive distress
There are a number of other factors which may contribute to constipation, including hormonal changes, stress, poor toilet posture and the side-effect of some medications. In some cases, constipation can be a symptom of a bigger medical problem, so if you aren’t seeing much relief from our suggestions above, have a chat with your GP or trusted medical professional to explore some other options.