Nutrition with Jane McClenaghan: Back to regularity – tips to tackle constipation
ARE you regular? One of the questions I always ask my 1-2-1 clients is how often they poop. It can tell a lot about a person’s general health, not just the state of their digestive tract. Constipation affects our mental and emotional health as well as our physical well-being, so it is important to get things regular.
:: So, how often should we go?
If you go ‘every few days’, or ‘once or twice a week’, that ain’t enough. Ideally we should go at least once a day and it should be easy to pass. If you want to take a closer look, the Bristol Stool Chart can be found online and is a guide to how your poo should look. It illustrates seven different grades, with ‘normal’ being between three-to-four.
:: What is it?
According to the NHS, constipation is defined as:
- If you haven’t had a poo at least three times in a week
- If it is difficult to push out and larger than usual
- If your poo is often dry, hard or lumpy
- If you have to strain to go
There can be a whole range of reasons why someone is constipated, from diet and lifestyle, to medication and health conditions like Parkinson’s, MS, an underactive thyroid and depression.
The link between our gut and brain is significant too. When we are in a stressed and anxious state (fight-or-flight, also known as the sympathetic nervous system), it can impact on our bowel and almost cause ‘lock-down’. In contrast, when we are feeling rested and relaxed, we are in our parasympathetic mode, also known as ‘rest and digest’.
:: What can you do about it?
1 Eat enough fibre. Especially soluble fibre from fruit, vegetables, oats, beans, lentils (careful if you are windy) and flaxseed, as this is the stuff that softens the stool and helps get things moving.
2 Drink enough water. Soluble fibre needs plenty of water to work properly, so drink up. Aim for about one and a half litres a day.
3 Avoid white bread and other refined carbs, as they do not contain any fibre. The fibre we get from wholegrains tends to be insoluble fibre – this acts a bit like a yard brush on our digestive tract. It needs to be eaten in combination with soluble fibre, so I find that for people with constipation oats are a more gentle form than wheat and bran.
A word of warning, though – increase your fibre gradually, as too much, too soon can irritate the gut and might increase wind.
4 Certain foods are renowned for their natural laxative effect. From prunes and figs, to flaxseed, licorice and spicy foods.
5 Foods that tend to bung us up can include meat, eggs and nuts. It’s different for everyone, so it's a good idea to keep a food diary and see what your triggers are.
6 Move your body. Exercise helps with peristalsis, the muscular movement that gets things moving along the digestive tract.
7 Manage your stress levels. Whether it is meditation or gardening, art or crosswords, make sure you include a little ‘me time’ every day to help balance the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) systems.
:: What about supplements?
There is a whole range of supplements that might help. I would suggest trying dietary changes first and see how you get on.
Magnesium and vitamin C can help support peristalsis, which is the muscular movement of the bowel that helps get things moving.
Psyllium husks are packed with soluble fibre and are often used to manage constipation.
Senna is a natural laxative that can be taken as a tea or supplement.
A good quality probiotic supplement can also be helpful to replenish levels of good bacteria that can be knocked out of balance if we don’t go regularly enough, and this imbalance may exacerbate symptoms.