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Chronic Constipation: Facts vs. Myths

Learn how to relieve chronic constipation.

Chronic Constipation: What's Normal? What's Not? continued...

Chronic Constipation Myth: Chronic constipation does not affect that many people.

The Truth: Chronic constipation is a serious issue, affecting 15% to 20% of the U.S. population.

Chronic Constipation Myth: If you eat right, exercise, and drink plenty of fluids, you should never suffer from chronic constipation.

The Truth: Sometimes psychological issues trigger chronic constipation. For instance, childhood sexual or physical abuse -- or the loss of a parent through divorce, separation, or death -- may contribute to adult chronic constipation. Constipation often coexists with depression. Chronic constipation can also be caused by an underlying medical condition such as low thyroid hormone levels.

Chronic Constipation: What Causes It?

After you eat, food moves through your digestive tract. The intestines take water and nutrients from the food. Normally, the process continues until a stool is formed. Squeezing contractions in the intestine then pass the stool out of the body.

Because constipation is often linked with hard stools, one theory is that too much water is absorbed from the stool, leaving it dry and hard. Another theory is that abnormal hormonal responses to the ingested water may trigger chronic constipation. More research is necessary to better understand how constipation happens and to unravel the mysterious link between the gut, hormones, and the brain.

6 Keys to Relieving Chronic Constipation

Relieving chronic constipation takes a multifaceted, lifestyle approach:

1.Get Regular

Go to the bathroom at the same time each morning. Make this your morning "habit," as colonic motor activity is highest at this time.

2.Listen to Your Body

Don't ignore the urge to go. Peristalsis of the bowel -- the movements that trigger a bowel movement -- come and go. If you ignore this urge, you may lose the opportunity. The longer stool stays in the bowel, the harder it gets as more water is reabsorbed, and the more difficult it is to expel. The urge to defecate also increases after mealtime, so take advantage of your body's signals.

Because stress can interfere with relaxation of the whole body, including the bowels, it's important to use some type of relaxation technique daily. Satish Rao, MD, PhD, FRCP, professor of medicine and director of neurogastroenterology and GI motility at the University of Iowa, finds that many patients cannot push properly because they are too rushed and stressed. "They have too little time to take care of their bodies," says Rao.

4.Increase Fluids

Drink plenty of liquids. It's recommended that you drink at least eight glasses of liquid (preferably water) each day. Drink more on hot days and when you are exercising.

5.Bulk Up Your Diet

Dietary fiber and bulk fiber laxatives such as psyllium or methylcelluose -- taken with plenty of fluids -- work well for relieving chronic constipation. Harris H. McIlwain, a Tampa-based rheumatologist and author of the new book A Diet for a Pain-Free Life, believes that wheat bran is the most effective fiber in relieving chronic constipation. "Wheat bran adds bulk to the stool and increases the rate of movement of the stool through the bowel," says McIlwain.

6.Talk to Your Doctor About Medications

Medications and laxatives can help relieve constipation, but they must be taken carefully and for short periods of time. Consult with your doctor before taking any medication.

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