Tips for Avoiding Irregularities

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How often should one have a bowel movement? In medical school, it was taught that “normal” people empty their bowels from several times a day to once a week.

I don’t believe that anymore. Having a bowel movement more than once a day is okay. But having a bowel movement only once a week is definitely not normal or healthful. Chronic constipation can lead to health problems.

First, chronic constipation promotes precancerous changes in colon cells. Presumably this is because these cells are exposed to bile acids and other toxins in intestinal waste for a longer-than-optimal period of time.

Constipation can also lead to hemorrhoids. People suffering from constipation often must strain to empty their bowels, and straining causes a buildup of pressure inside blood vessels lining the anal canal. Hemorrhoids are simply varicose veins in the anal canal.

What causes constipation?

The most common causes are a lack of fiber in the diet, insufficient consumption of water and a sedentary lifestyle.

Constipation is also a side effect of certain medications. These include codeine and other opiate painkillers, tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline (Elavil), pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) and other decongestants and Maalox and other aluminum-based antacids.

Calcium can also be the constipation culprit. If you’re taking calcium supplements, you should be taking magnesium supplements as well. Taken at about half the dosage of the calcium, magnesium helps counteract the constipating effect of the calcium.

Methods for curing constipation

You’ve already heard that boosting your intake of dietary fiber can help make you regular. But I want to stress that you also need lots of water. In fact, eating more fiber without simultaneously increasing your intake of water can make constipation worse instead of better. I recommend drinking at least eight eight-ounce glasses of water each day.

Dietary fiber is found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If eating more high-fiber foods (and drinking more water) doesn’t work for you, consider trying Metamucil or another over-the-counter psyllium seed product. Psyllium seed is a “bulking agent,” and not a true (cathartic) laxative. Yet it’s very effective against constipation.

Unlike laxatives, psyllium can safely be taken on a daily basis. Daily use of laxatives can lead to “lazy” bowels and to even worse constipation not to mention dehydration and life-threatening imbalances in the body’s sodium-potassium balance. Laxatives should be used only for occasional trouble.

One of the few laxatives recommended by conventional and alternative practitioners alike is tea made from the herb senna, which is available at health-food stores. Senna tea is quite effective, but I’ve found an even more potent remedy sennaed prunes.

To make sennaed prunes, pour enough boiling water over a cup of prunes to cover them. Drop in a senna tea bag. Remove the tea bag after five to 20 minutes the longer the bag stays in, the stronger the tea. Refrigerate the prune-senna mixture overnight before eating.

By the way, while caffeinated coffee has laxative properties, ordinary black tea contains tannins, compounds that cause constipation.

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