Constipation is a common health problem that causes difficulty in passing stools and emptying the bowels. The common causes of constipation include poor dietary habits, poor intake of fluids and physical inactivity. According to a 2014 study published in Journal Gastroenterology Nursing constipation is significantly more frequent in females than in males.
What is constipation?
In several Asian countries, the normal stool frequency is 1-2 motions/day, which is seen in over 90% of the population. But a 2016 study  on ‘Evaluation of the symptom of constipation in Indian patients’ reported that a stool frequency of less than 5 motions per week is more appropriate in Indian definition of constipation. So if your bowel habits are less than this, it is a sign to consult a doctor.
What causes constipation?
Constipation is a common symptom in pregnancy and also mostly seen in elderly (above 60 years of age). It is a condition which affects the quality of life but in many cases the cause is unknown. However, there are few common causes of constipation:
1. Poor diet habits
One of the common causes of constipation, poor dietary habits can affect bowel movements. If your diet fails to include foods rich in fibre such as fruits and vegetables or if you do not include enough of these foods in diet, it can affect digestion and passing of stools. This is because, fibre acts as a natural laxative, which holds water in the stool, increases the bulk and makes it easy to pass stools. Lack of fiber in diet can lead to difficulty in emptying the bowels, causing constipation.
2. Insufficient fluid intake
Lack of sufficient amount of water in the body can lead to dehydration, which is one of the factors that can cause constipation. This is because, when you suffer from dehydration, the body tries to conserve water by removing water from the stools. As a result, the stools contain less amount of water, which makes it harder to pass the stools.
3. Use of certain medicines
Constipation can be caused as a side-effect of certain medicines such as iron salts, opioids, sedatives, over the counter antacids and some of the drugs used to lower blood pressure. So if you are taking any of these medicines, then do consult your doctor. He may either change the dosage of the medicines or help you treat constipation with medicines or laxatives.
4. Digestive disorders
People suffering from irritable bowel syndrome can suffer from constipation due to disordered defecation, which exerts pressure on the rectal muscles to pass stools. It is also seen in people suffering from diabetes or diabetic nephropathy, which may affect the nerves of the intestine, thus slowing down the functioning of the organ.
Low levels of thyroid hormones and high calcium levels can also affect the bowel movement. Moreover, constipation can also happen during a chronic illness that requires prolonged bed rest. This is because lack of physical activity affects the movement of digested food and stool along the intestine.
5. Overuse of laxatives
Laxatives are common medicines used to treat constipation. In most cases, people with this condition do not consult a doctor but use laxatives to get rid of it. However, it is reported that overuse of laxatives is not good for the health. People who use laxatives frequently tend to lose the ability to pass stools without such aids. Hence, in the long run, it can lead to more use of laxatives and an increased risk of constipation.
The use of conventional laxatives, as a first step for the treatment of constipation, are not effective in many cases. Moreover, laxatives can cause drug interactions with other medications.
So if you experience constipation, do review your dietary habits and physical workout. If persistent or unresolved it is wise to consult a doctor rather than taking over the counter medicines or trying out home remedies to deal with it.
(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, Consultant Pharmacologist)
1. Rajput M, Saini SK. Prevalence of constipation among the general population: a
community-based survey from India. Gastroenterol Nurs. 2014 Nov-Dec;37(6):425-9.
2. Ray G. Evaluation of the Symptom of Constipation in Indian Patients. J Clin Diagn Res. 2016 Apr;10(4):OC01-3.