We usually do not think about bowel movements until there is something that makes emptying the bowels a difficult or unpleasant affair. For most of us, bowel movements occur smoothly and easily, without any fuss. However, there are times when the passing of stool becomes a difficult and painful process. According to estimates, around 15% of the population of the United States suffers from constipation. For those who suffer from constipation on a chronic basis, the search for an effective cure seems to be a futile exercise.
Difficulty with Bowel Movement
Constipation is defined as having less than three bowel movements over the period of a week. The bowel movements in constipation are not smooth, mostly due to abnormal hardening of stools. Even on days when stools are not passed, there is a constant discomfort in the rectum. Sometimes, there may be a continuous urge for bowel movement despite the inability to pass stools.
Many cases of constipation are chronic. These affect the quality of life adversely. In these chronic cases, treatments usually bring in only temporary relief. The symptoms of constipation return after subsiding for a while. To manage chronic constipation, long-term lifestyle and dietary changes may be required in addition to other treatments. These lifestyle and dietary changes need to continue even when normal bowel movements return.
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Causes of Difficult Bowel Movement
There are a variety of causes for difficult bowel movements or constipation. These causes include bowel abnormalities, hormonal problems, abnormalities in nervous system, dietary factors and lifestyle factors. In many cases of chronic constipation, the cause is not known. In these cases, no pathological abnormalities can be identified, and constipation is believed to be due to some unknown physiological abnormality. Individuals in such cases are said to suffer from functional constipation.
Identifying the exact cause of constipation can help in deciding on an appropriate treatment, and in managing the condition effectively over the long term. The following are some of the common causes of constipation:
- Lack of sufficient fiber in the diet
- Insufficient water intake
- Sedentary lifestyle and lack of regular exercise
- Weakening of the muscles in the walls of the bowels
- Abnormalities in the nervous system of gut, leading of weak stimulation of muscles in the gut wall
- Damaged pelvic nerves
- Hormonal changes such as those caused by hypothyroidism, pregnancy, and chronic diabetes mellitus
- Narrowing of the lumen of the bowel due to constriction or abnormal growths/cancer
- Overuse of laxatives
- Weakening of the muscles of rectum (for example, in the elderly) and pelvic floor (for example, after childbirth)
- Congenital disorders such as Hirschsprung’s disease
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Cystic fibrosis
- Disorders of the colon (such as megacolon, Crohn’s disease, and diverticulosis)
- Brain disorders (such as stroke) and spinal injuries
- Medications (such as anticonvulsants, antidepressants, antacids, calcium channel blockers, opiates, and iron supplements)
- Idiopathic (cause not known)
Remedies for Easy Bowel Movements
As described in the previous section, there are many different causes of constipation. The exact treatment for difficult bowel movements can only be prescribed if the underlying cause of difficult bowel movements can be identified. However, there are some general treatments that help in many cases. These treatments include using laxatives, fiber supplements, and stool softeners. Enema is also an extreme option that might be beneficial.
Despite treatment, constipation tends to recur in many individuals. In such cases, long-term changes in diet and lifestyle are required to manage the chronic difficulties of bowel movements. From a general health perspective, these dietary and lifestyle changes are beneficial even for people who do not suffer from constipation. These changes have many health benefits other than making the bowel movements easier.
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Dietary Changes for Easy Bowel Movements
Most of the dietary changes recommended for easing the bowel movements are the same as those suggested for maintaining overall good health. Some of the recommended dietary changes are as follows:
- Stay hydrated: Drinking sufficient quantity of water every day is the simplest dietary change that can have major health benefits. More than 50% of our bodies are made up of water, which is a critical medium for life processes. The amount of water that needs to be consumed in order to remain properly hydrated varies between individuals. For adults, an average daily intake of 2 liters of water is considered healthy. Water intake will be more for a person who lives in a hot climate or is physically active.
- Eat sufficient quantities and varieties of fruits and vegetables: More than half of our daily diet should be composed of fresh fruits and vegetables. Besides providing the required nutrition, these foods are also a source of fiber in the diet. Dietary fiber helps in softening the stools and easing the bowel movements.
- Include foods with high fiber content: Dietary fiber is also present in foods such as bran muffins and cereals. These can be used as snacks.
- Avoid intake of caffeine and alcohol: Alcohol and caffeine intake can lead to dehydration since these substances increase the frequency of urination. If consuming alcohol or caffeine, one should remember to increase the daily water intake.
Lifestyle Changes for Easy Bowel Movements
Lifestyle changes for easing bowel movements include daily implementation of the following activities.
- Exercise: Regular exercise for 30 minutes every day, for five days a week, will aid healthy and easy bowel movements. Besides easing bowel movements, a regular daily exercise regimen also has health benefits for the whole body. Abdominal and pelvic exercises in particular help in stimulating bowel movements. Example exercises include crunches, leg lifts, and Kegel exercises.
- Avoid sitting for long periods: A sedentary lifestyle is frequently associated with constipation. Reducing sitting time by taking frequent breaks to move around could help in avoiding some of the risks of a sedentary lifestyle. If regular intense workouts or physical activities are not feasible, then a regular schedule of walking can also help.
- Bowel training: Have a regular time every day for emptying the bowels helps in creating a regular bowel habit.
- Not withholding stools: Some people ignore the urge to defecate when it arises. Unless the environmental circumstances dictate otherwise, it is not wise to withhold stools when the urge arises.