Feeling blocked up? Your gut is a muscle and it needs to move, especially at midlife. Fluctuations in progesterone and estrogen typical of menopause, associated with an unhealthy diet lacking fibre and loaded with processed foods, as well as physical inactivity, all play a role in constipation. Add this to the fact that pelvic floor muscles are prone to weakening as women grow older, making bowel movements an even greater struggle.
Constipation isn’t a simple problem- says Dr Kyle Staller, a gastroenterologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital-. It is characterized by fewer than three bowel movements a week, hard dry stools, straining to move one’s bowels, and a sense of an incomplete evacuation. Symptoms can vary, depending on whether the condition is sporadic or chronic.
Coming to terms with constipation
Women are three times more likely to get blocked up than men. Some doctors speculate it’s because our colons are slightly longer, adding more twists and turns—and potential roadblocks—to our digestive tracts. However, before taking an over-the-counter stool softener and laxative, it would be better to pay attention to your lifestyle (yes, alcohol abuse, dehydration, stress, can cause problems, too). A few simple tweaks to your routine could help you stay regular.
Here are some natural ways to relieve constipation.
Change your diet
Eating high-fibre food and drinking lots of water often helps speed up digestion. Staying hydrated by drinking six to eight glasses of liquid a day can keep stool soft, making bowel movements more frequent and comfortable. Also, substituting foods you normally eat with high-fibre options (whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, vegetables and fruits – especially prunes and dried plums).
Start with an apple or an orange every 2 days and choose whole-grain bread and pasta – says Kelly Issokson, a registered dietitian at the Cedars-Sinai Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center-. Snack on nuts and dried fruits, and aim to work up to 5-10 grams of fibre at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
You need fibre to bulk up your stools so they can pass more easily through your intestines. It’s recommended that women 50 and older get at least 21 grams each day. Avoid cheese, high-fat meats, dairy products and eggs. Rich desserts, sugary sweets can plug you up as well.
Probiotic may also help restore healthy bacteria in the digestive system. Found naturally in foods such as sauerkraut and yoghurt or taken as a supplement, they can be added to your daily regimen to prevent or relieve constipation.
Any physical activity, even light exercise such as walking, can help get your insides moving. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercising—such as walking a few laps around the block—every day. Yoga can help, too. Twisting motion of the torso, for instance, can also squeeze the intestines so that the stool loosens in the colon.
Get on a daily schedule
The longer stool sits in your intestines, the harder it becomes, and the more difficult it is to push out. “That’s why having a regular bowel habit is important,” says Dr Stanley Rosenberg, a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Because the emptying reflex works best after a meal, “I tell my patients to eat a good breakfast, and after breakfast go into the bathroom and sit there for 10 minutes. See if you get the urge.”
Review your medications
Some medications can cause constipation. Antibiotics, certain allergy medications (antihistamines) and painkillers can do it. Add to the list sedatives, diuretics, iron supplements and anti-inflammatories. Ask your doctor about alternative medications that treat your underlying condition but don’t cause constipation.
Opt for mild laxatives
There are several options. Gentle laxatives you might want to consider include castor oil, senna, tea, fennel, aloe vera and magnesium citrate or those supplements that contain psyllium or methylcellulose. Please, bear in mind using stimulant laxatives occasionally (think once per month) is fine; if you’re taking them daily or every other day, you may find yourself constipated again once you stop. “Your body can become dependent on them,” explains Neha Shah, MPH, RD, a clinical dietitian with Stanford Health Care, so you may not be able to have a bowel movement without them.
And don’t forget to drink coffee, especially in the morning. It stimulates the muscles in the gut and it may also contain small amounts of soluble fibre.
If your constipation becomes chronic, does not respond to at-home treatment, seek out a doctor’s care.