Expert answers: What causes constipation and the best ways to treat it

Aug 19, 2019
There's nothing worse than the frustration and discomfort that comes with constipation but thankfully there are effective treatments. Source: Getty

There’s nothing worse than not being able to go to the bathroom and while poo isn’t a topic many people feel comfortable talking about, the truth is that everyone experiences constipation at one point or another. The condition leaves some people unable to go to the toilet at all, while others may experience pain and discomfort when they are able to pass stools, however there are effective ways to treat it.

Constipation can impact people of all ages, but there’s an array of reasons why older people may be at greater risk of developing it including certain medications, diet and lifestyle factors and pre-existing health conditions. Experts say it’s usually a combination of factors that work together to slow down bowel movement, then causing constipation.

“Medication and lifestyle factors are large contributors to constipation in older adults, with many pain medications, anti-Parkinson’s drugs, antidepressants, antiemetic drugs, antihistamines, antihypertensive drugs and some chemotherapeutic agents causing constipation,” Dr Hannah Wardill, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Adelaide, tells Starts at 60. “As we age, we tend to also eat less varied food – particularly if in a nursing home – with low fibre and highly processed food associated with higher rates of constipation.”

Woman using medication
Always talk to a health professional about the medication you take and whether constipation may be a side effect. Source: Getty

Fibre is found naturally in many fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and legumes and, because it’s hard for the stomach to break down, it actually helps to keep the digestive system moving. Soluble fibre is found in many legumes, fruits, vegetables and oats and is considered better for constipation than insoluble fibre found in whole grains, nuts, seeds and bran. Resistant starch, which is the third type, promotes the production of good bacteria and improves overall bowel health and is found in foods such as pasta and rice.

“Soluble fibre allows more water to remain in the stool, making it softer and easier to pass,” Wardill explains. “Fibre also helps support a diverse and healthy microbiome [all of the genetic material within the collection of microorganisms in the gut] by providing a nutrient source for the bacteria that reside in our guts.”

Specific foods that are high in fibre that may assist with constipation include pears, apples, berries, green vegetables, carrots, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds and should replace foods that are highly processed or high in fats and sugar.

“All the fruits and vegetables are the best place to start, but you’ve got all the lentils and chickpeas and people joke about beans and things like that in terms of flatulence but they’re going to help you be regular as well,” nutritionist Rick Hay explains. “I would put in there even herbal teas because they give you more fluid and they can end up helping as well.”

Apples sliced up.
Apples are an example of a fruit that is high in fibre and could help with constipation. Source: Pexels

Grapes and prune juice are also high in fibre and hydrating, while leafy green vegetables are high in magnesium – which can also help with bowel movements.

It’s also common for exercise to be prescribed as a first line of therapy for constipation, with research published in February showing that low-impact exercises such as walking, cycling and yoga may have significant benefits for constipation relief, but that the real effect of the intervention can’t be definitively determined without further research.

“While the evidence for exercise doesn’t scream any sort of clear consensus, it’s certainly recommended in the management of constipation,” Wardill says. “I think the variability likely comes from the varied nature of constipation causes, and the fact that exercise contributes one of many parts of constipation aetiology.”

Hay adds: “The results of exercise should happen within about two weeks. Even something like a gentle walk is going to relax you.”

Old couple exercising
Experts may suggest exercise as a way of overcoming constipation. Source: Getty

When diet or lifestyle changes don’t improve constipation, experts may then look at other possible causes such as health problems including diabetes, hypothyroidism, menopause, hormonal changes or neurological disorders such as dementia or Parkinson’s. It’s also possible for psychological factors including stress, depression and anxiety to slow down bowel movement, which can be exacerbated by sedentary behaviours and anti-depressant use.

In these cases, treatments specific to individual circumstances may be offered, while laxatives may also be suggested. Still, it’s important not to rely too heavily on laxatives.

“Overuse of laxatives can also be a common problem. Older people can fear constipation, and thus take high amounts of laxatives in an attempt to prevent it from occurring,” Wardill says. “Before too long, they become dependent on laxatives and normal GI [gastrointestinal] function and transit can become sluggish and slow.”

If problems persist and diet or lifestyle changes aren’t having an impact, it’s always important to discuss symptoms with a GP or a gastroenterologist. In cases where a pre-existing health condition is causing the constipation, typical diet or lifestyle changes may not work.

“Know that things slow down when you get older. You may not be as regular as you once were,” Hay says. “You’re going to be aiming for one bowel movement a day.”

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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