Santé et Services sociaux Québec.

Previous page Text size

Constipation

Constipation is quite common among the elderly. It is characterized by slow movement of waste through the intestines and hard, dry bowel movements that are difficult to pass and that occur less than three times a week.

Various conditions can prevent the intestines from functioning properly.

Diet Low in Fiber

The most common cause of constipation is a diet low in dietary fiber. Fiber increases stool volume, which makes elimination easier. Increasing fiber intake, therefore, can help with constipation. The increase must be gradual, however, so that the intestines can adjust to the change in diet.

Dietary fiber is found mainly in grain products, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and legumes. When constipation occurs, turn to whole-grain products (e.g. wheat bread and whole-grain cereals) rather than processed goods, fresh fruit instead of fruit juice. Cooked and raw vegetables are also good choices. These high-fiber choices will help your intestines function better.

You can also increase your fiber intake by adding wheat or oat bran to your yogurt, cereal, soup, fruit salad, or juice.

You need to increase your fluid intake when you consume more fiber. Otherwise, the fiber may produce the opposite effect.

Inadequate Fluid or Food Intake

Sound dietary intake helps waste move through the intestines. Water and juice increase stool volume as well as soften stool, which facilitates its passage and elimination. The recommended fluid intake is 8 to 10 glasses of water or fluids a day, which amounts to 1.5 L to 2.0 L (50 oz. to 65 oz.). Coffee, alcohol, and soft drinks, however, should not be counted because they tend to dehydrate more than they hydrate.

Physical Inactivity

Physical inactivity is also associated with constipation. Just being active on a regular basis can help relieve constipation. Indeed, certain movements that activate the abdominal muscles stimulate intestinal movement. Even passive movements, such as stomach massage, can help produce similar results.

Excessive Laxative Use

In most cases, laxatives are not necessary. Unfortunately, many people use them improperly out of fear of becoming constipated. Just remember that normal frequency can vary from seven bowel movements a day to three a week! You should also be aware that overusing laxatives can be harmful to the colon and result in habituation, which means that the intestines become dependent on these medications in order to be able to eliminate stool. You should follow the guidelines given above before resorting to laxatives, unless your doctor advises you to do so.

Medications

Certain medications can impact on the normal elimination of stool. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if your regular medication can cause constipation and follow the recommendations above.

Prunes and prune juice can also help with constipation. Make them an occasional addition to your diet.