‘Tis the Season for irregular bowel habits —January is Constipation Awareness Month. Think about it. The period between Thanksgiving and New Years is probably the time of year when our diets change the most. Seasonal holiday parties and social gatherings provide many opportunities for overeating, for eating at irregular times and consuming a variety of not-too-healthy holiday foods that are absent from our diets during the rest of the year.
This hectic and stressful time of year, with shopping and partying added to our regular activities, undoubtedly leads to fewer of us getting the exercise we need to maintain good digestive health.
No doubt that many of us, including celebraties will be undergoing various types of cleanses in January as part of our New Years’ resolutions. But until then, how can we cope with seasonal constipation disorder? What are some ways to know if you are constipated?
First of all, constipation is a symptom and not a disease. Doctors and patients can and often do differ in what they mean by particular terms. Health care professionals use the Rome Criteria for constipation. You have to have two or more of these symptoms for at least three months:
- Straining at defecation at least 25% of the time
- Hard stools at least 25% of the time
- Incomplete emptying of the bowels at least 25% of the time
- Two or fewer bowel movements per week
Believe it or not, there’s also a visual guide to the hardness of stools, called the Bristol Stool Chart. [Note from Kerri: The folks at Greatist have an alternative chart, using chocolate bars… I am not sure if this is better or worse, but here it is.]
An important point to remember is that constipation affects almost everyone at one time or another. In most cases, following these simple steps will help prevent constipation:
- Eat a variety of foods especially vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
- Drink plenty of liquids
- Exercise regularly
- Visit the restroom as soon as you feel the urge to have a bowel movement
- Fiber-containing tablets and powders available at the drug store may help
- Consider using a diet journal to track your eating habits and patterns
Constipation is very prevalent in elderly patients as noted by Hippocrates who said, some 2,500 years ago: “The intestines tend to become sluggish with age.”
Constipation in children is common and rarely a sign of a serious health problem. However it can affect quality of life and cause emotional problems and family stress. If your child appears constipated, a digital rectal examination (DRE) should be performed by your pediatrician or primary care physician prior to referring the child to a specialist.
For some, constipation is usually not harmful, but recurrent problems may be symptoms of a chronic condition, like Crohn’s disease or colitis. Wearing medical jewelry can make those that need to know aware of your situation, in case abdominal or intestinal pain, or any other medical emergency, requires you to seek urgent care.