Constipation is one of the most common physical things to quietly moan about in the Western world. It is the infrequent and often very painful passing of hard faeces.
Constipation can be much more than just an embarrassing and uncomfortable problem. If left untreated it can contribute towards diverticular1 diseases, haemorrhoids2 and may even put a person at a greater risk of bowel cancer. This is a very good reason to get rid of it as soon as possible, as if the pain and horrible feeling wasn't enough.
What Causes It?
Constipation can largely been blamed on the diet in the West. Lack of physical exercise, stress, change in daily routine3 or the intake of drugs can also cause or aggravate the issue. Your digestive system is a sensitive machine and needs to be looked after to avoid these problems. Of course, sometimes constipation can be a warning sign of something worse, namely irritable bowel syndrome. This is a miserable condition and takes a lot of effort to keep under control in some circumstances. If you have ongoing constipation for a long time, always consult your doctor.
To 'function regularly' our bowels need lots of fluids as well as fibre to help bulk digested food and make it easier to pass. About 3-4 pints4 of water a day is the minimum you should be drinking. The UK Department of Health has stated that on average we need 12-20g5 of fibre per day. Some people may need a lot more than this if constipation is known to be a problem and their general levels of exercise are very low. It is very common for example, for hospital patients to suffer from severe constipation. However, there is no proven health benefit to taking more than about 32g6 of fibre per day and, indeed, it may cause problems in mineral absorption. However, some studies show that having an intake of 35g of fibre a day may reduce the chance of bowel cancer by up to 40%.
Fibre7 is very important to keep our digestive systems moving smoothly and happily. There are two forms of fibre: insoluble and soluble.
Insoluble fibre is mainly made up of cellulose and can be found in all plants. With enough fluid intake, this increases faeces bulk (aiding peristalsis) and thus helps keep everything moving at a good speed. Of course, moving at the right speed is optimum for avoiding disease and irritable bowel syndrome. It also helps us to not feel hungry, which is always a nice thing.
Soluble fibre comes in various forms, such as pectin (found mainly in citric fruits), beta-glucans (in oats and barley) and arabinose (in pulses8). Some studies show that soluble fibre can help lower blood cholesterol levels. It also helps to control sugar absorption which may help in diabetes patients.
In order to get the recommended amount of fibre you need to put in quite a lot of work to include high-fibre foods in every meal. This brings to mind force-feeding of prunes but doesn't have to be that unpleasant.
Fibre can be found in many foods. All fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds contain fibre, but animal products don't. Therefore to have a high-fibre diet, it follows that you need to include lots of good plant foods. Refined plant products, such as biscuits and white rice, bread and pasta all contain much less fibre than the unrefined versions.
Many people add a spoonful of bran to their food each day. While unrefined bran is a good source of fibre, many studies show that it is probably a better idea to just eat foods that contain fibre in themselves, as bran in this form may block the absorption of minerals. This is no use, even though you may be regular with your bathroom visits.
Foods High In Fibre
So many foods contain fibre, but which ones are definitely going to be good for you so that you don't have to spend your entire day just packing in vegetables?
The following chart shows a few examples of high-fibre foods just to give you an idea of the sorts of things to eat. Not all of them are dry and brown and boring!
Good Sources of Fibre
|Average Portion Size
|Total Average Fibre (g)
|50g dry weight
|Red kidney beans
|50g dry weight
|3 slices (100g)
|50g dry weight
Well, who would think prunes would be so low on the list? It just goes to show that what everyone thinks isn't always right and there are much more yummy things you can eat to get your fibre rather than wrinkly prunes.
Cures For Constipation, Natural or Manufactured
Millions of people use brand-name laxatives9 to try and cure constipation. These are fine if you have a short-term problem, but if used long-term they can actually make the problem worse because your colon starts to rely on them. This means that when you stop taking them your constipation is likely to get much worse, and then you start taking them again. It is best to cure constipation through diet, exercise and a few changes in lifestyle.
If stress is the cause of your constipation rather than a lack of fibre, then taking a mild herbal relaxant for a few days can help sort out the problem. This could include even just a mug of camomile tea twice a day. Try to change the stressful things and take regular exercise. Obviously, worrying about the fact you have constipation only adds to your stress so it's important to take care of every part of your life, physical and mental, through difficult times.
Some herbal remedies, such as senna, are strong purgatives and they should be used with the same level of caution as branded laxatives. However there are many more gentle things that can be taken for constipation. These include rose-hip syrup, olive oil, honey or liquorice. Strong spices such as curry powder or chilli also have a laxative effect.
A commonly sworn-by cure for constipation is M&Ms. However nobody knows quite why they work...they just do!
As with all things, moderation is the key. While it's not advised to take tablets for long periods of time, there is also no point in glugging down loads of olive oil. Not only will your stomach get cross at the abuse, but you may suddenly find yourself with the reverse of constipation!