Tips to treat constipation
A diet that is high in animal fats, such as meat, cheese, and eggs, and refined sugar, but low in fibre from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains is a common cause of constipation.
The infrequent and difficult passage of stools is particularly common in older people. This is because gut motility decreases with age, resulting in food and waste taking longer to pass through the intestine. Stimulant laxatives can make the intestine sensitive to their effects, so you should avoid taking them regularly. It is far more effective to treat constipation through changes to your diet.
In addition, regular exercise will help stimulate intestinal activity and improve the motility of the intestinal tract.
Increase your fibre intake to relieve constipation
- Gradually increase your fibre intake by eating more whole grains, wholemeal bread and pasta, vegetables, fruits, and pulses. Aim to eat five servings of grains and grain products daily.
- Make sure that you eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Include foods with a natural laxative effect, such as prunes or prune juice, apricots, and apples.
- Eat a high-fibre breakfast cereal. Bran cereals are particularly high in fibre and can be livened up with toppings, such as sliced banana, raisins, or strawberries.
- Switch from white bread, pasta, and rice to wholemeal or whole-grain types.
- Avoid eating processed or highly refined foods, which are high in sugar and carbohydrates and low in fibre.
Increase your fluid intake to relieve constipation
If you suffer from constipation, increase your fluid intake. Aim to drink about 2 litres (3 ½ pints) of water a day. Dry stools are more difficult and painful to pass, but drinks add bulk and fluid to the stool, making it easier to expel.
Limit alcohol and caffeine because they can lead to dehydration, creating stools that are hard and more difficult to pass.
Magnesium and exercise against constipation
Magnesium can help loosen stools, so increase your intake of magnesium-rich foods, such as spinach, almonds, Brazil nuts, raisins, and artichokes (see A healthy diet). Soak dried fruits in juice or water for a nutritious fruit salad. Apricots, figs, and raisins are high in soluble fibre, and raisins are also high in magnesium.
Alternatively, you can take a magnesium supplement (see Vitamin and mineral supplements).
When should I see my doctor about constipation?
If you have recently become constipated and the problem has lasted for more than two weeks - even after increasing your intake of fibre and fluids and your level of activity - you should make an appointment to see your GP.
In addition, if you notice blood in your stool, consult your doctor, because bleeding from the intestine can be a symptom of a serious disorder such as colorectal cancer.
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