It’s a topic no one wants to discuss. It’s an extremely common health issue, yet it’s a gray area for many of the 63 million Americans who suffer with it—and that number is rising. It can cause pain and discomfort that can impact your quality of life and has more potential causes than most people think. We’re talking about chronic constipation, and we’re going to help you understand more about this seemingly hush-hush health problem.
Annually, over 6 million Americans visit hospital emergency rooms for constipation and more than 5 million prescriptions are written for it, so there’s no doubt this is a widespread problem. You’ll find plenty of misinformation online about what’s considered normal or acceptable when it comes bowel movement frequency. Some sites will tell you that whatever you’ve experienced throughout your life is what’s normal for you. Even if you’re used to going as infrequently as once a week for as long as you can remember, they say that’s okay because it’s your personal “normal”. Conventional medicine even says that as few as three times a week is acceptable. None of this could be further from the truth.
Regular bowel movements—at least once daily—are a necessary function of good health; this is one important way the body cleanses itself of toxins and waste materials. Without regular daily elimination, toxins can be reabsorbed into your body, and a host of health issues can arise.
As a solution to chronic constipation—defined as difficult, infrequent, pebble-like, or painful bowel movements over a few months’ time—many people turn to prescription or OTC medications and end up dependent on them for years. While this may produce the desired result in the moment, it is by no means a long-term solution, and it’s never a good idea to continually put medications of any kind into your body.
What makes this an even more dangerous “solution” is that the real reason for the constipation is not being uncovered or addressed. Like pain elsewhere in the body, constipation is a symptom that something is wrong, which can be as simple as dietary and lifestyle choices or something more serious, such as an underlying health condition. Rather than medicating the symptom, functional medicine looks deeper into the causation behind each individual’s constipation problem and finds a way to correct the root cause.
Constipation lies on both sides of the health equation—it can be caused by other health issues and, if left untreated, it can cause health problems. Let’s take a look at both.
Underlying Health Issues That Can Cause Constipation
- lack of physical activity
- diet high in processed foods, unhealthy fats and/or sugar
- low fiber/low greens diet
- certain medications
- not enough daily water intake
- ignoring the urge to go
- excessive caffeine or alcohol consumption
- neurological disorders
- medical conditions including hypothyroidism, diverticulitis, diabetes and more
Conditions Caused By Chronic Constipation
- blockage caused by impacted (stuck) fecal matter
- potential for colon cancer
- possible cause of diverticulitis
- urological disorders
- bowel incontinence
- rectal prolapse
New connections between causes and resulting conditions are continually being discovered; it’s even been reported that regular use of enemas or constipation medications can eventually become causes in and of themselves.
When is it time to seek medical advice?
An occasional bout of constipation happens to everyone, especially under certain circumstances like during times of extreme stress, when traveling, or if your diet changes for the worse for a period of time. This can cause temporary, or “acute”, constipation that goes away after things return to normal. However, you should see your doctor if you notice lasting changes in your stool consistency or overall bowel habits. In addition, if you experience pain, feel as though you’re not eliminating completely, or are having difficulty moving your bowels on a regular basis for several weeks, it’s time to get help.
Increasing your fiber intake is not only important to avoiding constipation, it’s also important for your overall health—and lettuce and tomato on your burger is not the same as having a side salad! But not all fiber is created equal—we’ll talk about breakfast cereals as well as the types of fiber you should include in your diet and why in our next blog post.