FRIDAY, Feb. 24, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Despite humorous commercials and late night television jokes, constipation is no laughing matter.
In fact, government statistics from both the United States and Canada indicate that 16 percent of the population suffers from this uncomfortable condition.
Yet, medical experts say that many people who think they're suffering from constipation really aren't. There is no rule that says you have to go every day. The basis for good gastrointestinal health is proper diet and exercise, they stress.
"What doesn't come out today will come out tomorrow," said Dr. Peter L. Szego, an associate professor for therapeutic gastroenterology at McGill University in Montreal. There are times when our digestive tracts are a little off, and Szego said he sees that more in women than in men.
"Bowel movements are a part of a very ritualistic part of behavior," he said. "We get up, have coffee, go to the bathroom. But many women don't have this kind of behavior. They get up at the same time or they don't, or the baby is crying and the mothers don't take time to recognize the urge to go to the bathroom. [If] you do it over and over again, you have a constipation problem," he said.
Sudden changes in bowel habits need medical attention because they may signal an obstruction or appendicitis, but occasional constipation has many remedies. Some are questionable, even though they can be bought without prescriptions, doctors say.
Mineral oils may be dangerous, particularly for the very old and very young, because they can be aspirated and cause lipoid pneumonia and lung lesions that can be fatal, said Szego.
Stimulant laxatives can be harmful if not used properly. "When you use it chronically, your body gets accustomed to it," he explained. "You keep increasing the dose. That doesn't mean when you travel and get constipated you shouldn't take it. I'm talking about seven-day-a-week use, as distinguished from the occasional use."
Magnesium sulfates make the stool loser and easier to pass, but should only be used on a short-term basis, Szego said. The laxative of choice these days are the "bulk" variety such as Metamucil, made of natural psyllium husk from India.
"Psyllium works because it takes up water, said Dr. David J.A. Jenkins, a professor in the department of nutritional science at the University of Toronto. It's not rapidly degraded by bacteria in the colon, so it keeps water in your bowel. It makes things softer and gives your bowel something to work out.
Lots of fiber and water in your diet also help reduce constipation problems Jenkins says. "Take high-bran cereal, plenty of vegetables like cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and legumes like lentils," he said. "If this were part of their diet every day, I think many people would find they'd get rid of constipation."
"Take your whole wheat bread instead of white bread, whole wheat cereal instead of corn flakes. Increase your fruits and vegetables," Jenkins added.
And stay active, added Szego. "The more active you are the more active your digestive system," he said. "If you sit on your rump all day, nothing works."
The U.S. National Institutes of Health has more about dealing with constipation.