Going from one extreme to the other with diarrhea and constipation is no picnic. While certain illnesses bring on these symptoms, on a day-to-day basis you can have normal bowel movements.
Medications and foods can be your allies or enemies when it comes to normal bowel function. Here’s what to do and what to watch out for.
What is Normal?
You may have been taught that it’s normal to have a bowel movement several times a day or just once a week. The truth is that once or twice a day is a good gauge to go by. A once-a-week bowel movement is not healthy and probably signals an intestinal problem like chronic constipation.
Chronic constipation promotes precancerous changes in your colon cells, likely because these cells are in constant contact with bile acids and other toxins in intestinal waste for a long period of time. Constipation can lead to hemorrhoids as well, as a result of straining and pressure in anal blood vessels. One of the number one causes of constipation is insufficient dietary fiber coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, but certain medications can also cause constipation.
This includes drugs like codeine and other opiates, tricyclic antidepressants (like Elavil), decongestants (like Sudafed) and aluminum-based antacids (like Maalox). In addition to these, too much calcium can also cause constipation. A good idea is to balance your calcium intake with magnesium; your magnesium intake should be about half the amount of calcium you normally ingest.
Cure for Constipation?
Of course, increasing your intake of dietary fiber will help to make you regular again so that you’re not in either extreme – constipation or diarrhea. Water, too, plays a big part here – and you need lots of it. If you just increase the amount of fiber you’re eating without water, you will get more constipated. Nutritional experts normally recommend at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water everyday.
You can get your dietary fiber in the healthiest of foods. Try more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. You may also need to try a psyllium seed product like Metamucil to help bulk up your bowels but still eliminate them safely and painlessly when water alone doesn’t help with your constipation.
Laxatives are not the answer, though the psyllium seeds in Metamucil have a laxative effect. Laxatives can cause diarrhea, worsened constipation, irregular bowel movements, dehydration and deadly imbalances in your body’s sodium-potassium balance. Laxatives are a short-term fix and, if taken at all, should be a rarity.
If you feel that a laxative is necessary and your doctor is okay with it, you can try a natural laxative instead. Senna tea, available at health food stores, is very effective, as well as sennaed prunes that you can make yourself. All you will need to do is boil water and pour it over a cup of prunes, then drop in a senna tea bag. After about 10 minutes or so, remove the tea bag and refrigerate the prunes overnight before you eat them.
Senna tea is great for constipation, but beware of black tea, which contains tannin compounds that actually cause constipation.