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Unraveling a Few Mysteries of Constipation

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Here are a few things I didn’t know about constipation -- a subject I find myself reading up on as my aging parents deal with it. And come on, don’t we all deal with it sometimes?

First, it can run the gamut from minor annoyance to chronic problem, and the latter condition definitely calls for a health care practitioner’s help. Just keep in mind this Mayo Clinic definition of “normal” bowel movements: anywhere from three trips to the bathroom a day to about three bowel movements per week.

If the problem has been on your mind for more than a few weeks, it’s time to determine the cause.

Second, in digging for the cause you might find that it is more than diet and lifestyle. Go through the oft-heard list: not enough fiber, not enough hydration, lack of exercise or too much sitting, a certain medication you’re taking, pregnancy or recovery from childbirth.

Beyond these common causes, though, are several harder-to-decipher causes, as outlined in a Health.com slideshow:

-- As an outcome of diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome or another condition

-- From antacids containing calcium or aluminum

-- As a side effect of depression, which can slow down the body’s natural processes, including digestion

-- Hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid, because sometimes it slows down the digestive process

-- Eating a diet high in dairy and cheese, but not mixing in enough fiber from fruits and vegetables

-- The iron, calcium or possibly another ingredient in your daily vitamin

-- Chocolate. Keep in mind, though, that some research links it to constipation while other research touts its digestive benefits.

Among the medications mentioned in the slideshow as possibly interfering with normal bowel movements are:

-- Antihistamines for allergies
-- Calcium channel blockers
-- Diuretics
-- Antidepressants with amitriptyline and, to a lesser extent, fluoxetine
-- Painkillers that rely on narcotics

Also, the jury is still out on whether regular use of aspirin and ibuprofen contribute to constipation.

Third, there’s a confusing world of laxatives that are on the market and you should use them only after doing your research and getting advice from a healthcare practitioner.

A Mayo Clinic chart breaks down the various kinds of laxatives -- pills, powders, liquids, suppositories, enemas -- into how they work and their possible side effects. You can see by brand the differences between stimulants, stool softeners, bulk formers and other over-the-counter remedies taken by mouth, along with information on rectal stimulants.

For instance, I did not know that a certain well-known brand of bulk former, even though it’s comparatively gentle on the system, can increase your constipation if it’s not taken with sufficient water. I also didn’t realize the risk of cramping and nausea with laxatives.

Overuse of laxatives can be a problem when it’s hard to wean your system from them. But a Mayo Clinic article points out that long-term laxative use as prescribed by a doctor can be safe and effective for certain causes of constipation.

Fourth, by reading up on the problem of constipation, I learned not only that it is one of the most frequently diagnosed gastrointestinal disorders but also that it’s not uncommon at all among the aging. An abstract for the recent online publication of “Chronic Constipation in the Elderly” in the American Journal of Gastroenterology gives a figure of 26 percent of women and 16 percent of men 65 and older suffering from what the journal called “self-reported constipation.”

For any age group, though, it’s not a problem to be dismissed.


Gardner, Amanda. “13 Surprising Causes of Constipation.” Health.com. Web. 9 Jan. 2012.

“Getting the Facts on Constipation.” Mayo Clinic news release. Web. 9 Jan. 2012. http://www.mayoclinic.org/news2010-mchi/5922.html

“Over-the-counter laxatives for constipation: Use with caution.” Mayo Clinic. Web. 9 Jan. 2012.

“Chronic Constipation in the Elderly.” American Journal of Gastroenterology. Web. 9 Jan. 2012. http://www.nature.com/ajg/journal/v107/n1/full/ajg2011349a.html

Reviewed January 10, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

Chronic Idiopathic Constipation

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