Myths vs. facts on constipation

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Myths vs. facts on constipation

Everyone has their theories on what causes constipation.  Some people have the belief that certain foods are “constipating” or that if you don’t have a daily bowel movement you are technically constipated.  The common and various misconceptions that persist among the general public on this topic only adds to the burden of the discomfort of constipation.

The word constipation simply means bowel movements that are infrequent or hard to pass.  Small, hard, dry bowel movements can be painful and going too long without one can bring on headaches, backaches, and stomachaches.  Chronic constipation can also lead to hemorrhoids, which are swollen, hardened varicose veins in the rectum usually caused by constipation or straining to have a bowel movement.

Occasional constipation can happen to all of us with the blame usually on a variety of things – lack of fluids, lack of exercise, lack of high-fiber foods, certain medications, and even stress. 

To sort out the misconceptions on constipation, here are common constipation myths along with what is the real fact behind the fallacy:

·      Myth: You should have a daily bowel movement

Fact: Daily bowel movements are not a requirement as everyone is different when it comes to their bowel habits.  For some people, normal is having a bowel movement 3 times a day while for others it could be 3 times a week.  Daily bowel movements are normal but it is also alright if you go without one for a few days as long as you feel fine.  Fewer than 3 bowel movements weekly is considered being constipated and if fewer than once a week, it is considered severe constipation.

·      Myth: Swallowing gum can cause constipation

Fact: If it is just a stick of gum it shouldn’t cause a problem, however several large wads of bubble gum at once could result in forming a mass blocking the digestive tract causing constipation.  Generally, for most people, swallowing gum is not an issue as it should move right through and on out the body, just like other foods.

·      Myth: Being constipated will create toxins in the body

Fact: There is the belief that being constipated causes the body to absorb toxins in stools that can result in disease such as arthritis, asthma, or colon cancer. At this time there is no evidence that bowel movements produce toxins – having constipation is not considered a disease.

·      Myth: It’s ok to hold it

Fact: No, it is not ok to ignore the call of Mother Nature. Being too busy to use a restroom is not a good excuse for holding in a bowel movement.  First, it can become physically uncomfortable to do so, and secondly it will only worsen constipation – the longer a stool sits in the colon, the harder and dryer it becomes making it more difficult to pass.  The solution is to always heed the urge to pass a bowel movement.  For some it helps to set aside time after breakfast or another meal for a bowel movement when the urges are the strongest.

·      Myth: All fiber is the same

Fact: Fiber comes in two different forms – soluble and insoluble.  Soluble fiber easily dissolves in water and is found mainly in beans, peas, and apples.  Insoluble fiber adds bulk to stools helping them to pass through the intestinal tract faster.  This type of fiber is found in whole grains, corn, celery, whole-wheat pasta and whole grain cereals. Most plant foods are made up of a combination of both soluble and insoluble fibers.  We need both types to help our bowels move on a regular basis.

·      Myth: Coffee  keeps things moving

Fact: On the one hand it is true that drinking a cup of coffee can stimulate the muscles in the digestive system to contract stimulating a bowel movement.  However, don’t rely on it a lot as the caffeine found in coffee is dehydrating and could actually make constipation worse.  The better beverage to consume is plenty of water or to where your urine is the color of pale lemonade.

·      Myth: Do a colon cleanse

Fact: Doing a colon cleanse, enema or colon irrigation to relieve constipation is generally not recommended.  They are considered not to be effective and enemas can actually cause constipation for older people who get them regularly.  Colonic irrigation can damage the colon leading to other problems.  Talk to your doctor about a better treatment method for chronic constipation.

·      Myth: Cheese and other high fat foods are constipating

Fact: In this case, this can be true for some people.  Consuming a lot of high fat foods such as cheese and red meat without adequate fiber-rich foods can slow down digestion.  Protein rich foods take longer to digest because breaking down protein is a slow process.  Cheese is also high in fat and like milk, can contain lactose which causes gas.  If a person is already constipated, they should either reduce or avoid cheese and choose more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, increase fluids and get in regular exercise.