Despite loving a bit of a poo joke, when it comes to sharing their own bowel habits, most Brits would rather talk about anything other than their own poo.
Two thirds of women would not even talk to their pharmacist or GP about any changes to bowel motions, research by the charity Beating Bowel Cancer has found.
What’s more, if they get the urge when they’re not at home, 45 per cent of women put toilet paper in the loo first to disguise the sound and one in four hold on and won’t go at all until they get home.
Constipation is among the most common bowel issue people avoid talking about, yet up to one in four of us and 40 per cent of pregnant women experience it regularly.
‘Constipation is the inability to have a regular soft stool, it could be hard and difficult to pass but people’s patterns are all different,’ says nutritionist Kate Arnold. ‘If you have been going twice a week all your life, that wouldn’t be as much of a problem than if you suddenly hadn’t been for two weeks.
‘It’s whether the number of times you go become significantly reduced or if you normally go three or four times a week and suddenly start only going once that’s a reason to increase your fibre,’ Arnold says. ‘LIkewise, if it continues, if it’s awfully painful or you find blood in your poo see your doctor’.
Foods like prunes ands figs are the highest in fibre, Arnold explains.
But they’re also high in sugar and calories so what if you’re watching your weight and you get constipated, what are some lower calorie options?
‘Apples and pears are particularly high in fibre,’ says Arnold. ‘When it comes to vegetables, anything leafy but in particular, kale, chard, runner beans along with the onion family are all high in fibre and low in calories.’
Arnold also says too many fried foods, fizzy drinks and alcohol can lead to constipation.
But while many of us might down a black coffee to get things moving, this can backfire in the long-term, she says.
‘Any more than three cups of coffee a day can get water out of bowel so the stool can become a lot drier which makes it harder to pass. A lot of people use coffee as a stimulant to get the bowel going but long-term this can dehydrate your bowel and leave you with painful bloating and constipation.
‘If you’re drinking alcohol and coffee you need to make sure you’re also getting enough water, the requisite 8-10 glasses.’
Exercise is great for getting the bowels moving she says. ‘In particular running and walking briskly is great for increasing peristalsis in the gut, that’s the movement of matter through the bowel and some people find light weight training and yoga and Pilates, because of its emphasis on strengthening the pelvic muscles areas also helps. The tone in the abdominal area can really help reduce constipation.’
What’s the medic’s view? ‘Only a third of people have a classic daily movement but anything from going three times a day to only twice a week is normal,’ says Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University Hospital, London.
‘If your constipation lasts a fortnight or more or you’re always straining, seek help.’ Your doctor should do blood tests to rule out something sinister – sudden weight loss or blood in the stools could be an indication of cancer but this is rare – anaemia or low thyroid function.
For about 40 per cent of people, eating more soluble fibre found in apples, oats, citrus fruits, berries, legumes or ‘guar gum’ (found in over-the-counter fibre powders such as Metamucil) will help.
For another one in five, upping their game on toilet habits solves it. ‘Never ignore the urge to go as this can train your bowel towards constipation,’ he says.
‘When you’re on the loo, making your knees higher than your hips by placing your feet on a small stool or pile of books can make evacuation easier.’
Watch overusing OTC laxatives as these help you go but make pain or bloating worse.
‘A new class of drugs called ‘prokinetics’ now work on the bowel muscle to encourage regularity and help with bloating and pain, something laxatives can’t do,’ he says. Talk to your doctor and if you have tried diet and lifestyle changes ask for a referral to a specialist.
Constipation may also be a side effect of iron supplements and some drugs such as painkillers.
Tracking your constipation habits in a diary can help you work out which lifestyle or diet habits might be affecting bowel movements.
A new app called The 28 Day Challenge allows you to record and track lifestyle, diet and stress factors that could be increasing your chances of becoming constipation over a 28-day period. It’s great to have something to discuss with your doctor and hey, at least you have something to break the ice with. It’s free from itunes
BOWEL CANCER SYMPTOMS – What to watch for in your poo
While we’re on the subject of bowel movements, do be aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer. Though it primarily affects the over 60s, younger people are also affected though less commonly. The earlier it’s caught, the higher the chances of survival and in fact, ‘if bowel cancer is caught in its earliest stage patients’ chances of survival are 90 per cent,’ says Dr Wendy Howells, a specialist in cancer medicine at Cancer Research UK. ‘But if its diagnosed at a very late stage, survival chances are only 10 per cent which is why reporting symptoms to your doctor and attending for screening when you’re asked are both crucial.’ If you have any one of the following for three weeks or more – that’s you or your partner – talk to your doctor
- Bleeding from the back passage (many men think this is piles, but it’s worth checking out if it hangs around)
- Blood in stools
- Any change in bowel habits (this could be anything from going more frequently, being more constipated or stools becoming looser or oddly-shaped)
- Unexplained weight loss
- A lump in the abdomen
- Abdominal pain
For more information, log on to Beating Bowel Cancer
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