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At one time or another almost everyone gets brief periods of constipation, although there is no one definitive definition for what constitutes constipation for any particular individual.  If you eat well-balanced meals and get a sufficient amount of exercise and you have not had a bowel movement in two or three days you may have constipation.  If your bowel movements are difficult or painful or if your stool is hard then you may also be suffering from constipation.  Constipation can cause you to feel bloated, lethargic, and even somewhat sick to your stomach.  From a purely technical standpoint the primary cause of constipation is that food is moving too slowly through the large intestine.  When food move too slowly the large intestine removes too much water from the stool and causes it to become too dry and hard – and therefore difficult and often painful to pass.

What Causes Constipation?

There can be many different causes of constipation, since each individual’s digestive system is slightly unique.  However, on the whole there are several things that can trigger constipation.  Certain drugs, notably pain killers (especially those with codeine), diuretics (water pills), many depression medications and certain antacids.  There can be other causes as well.  Stress, a low fiber diet, changing your eating or sleeping habits (such as during travel), not drinking enough liquids, taking certain supplements, especially iron and calcium, and ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement can all contribute to constipation.

How Serious is Constipation?

For most people a bout of constipation now and then is perfectly normal, especially if you have changed your eating or sleeping habits or you’ve changed medications or begun taking iron supplements.  But if constipation becomes a chronic issue then it could be a symptom of another problem. In order to determine the root cause of your problem your doctor may have to run some fairly uncomfortable tests.  Your doctor may need to perform a colonoscopy, in which a tube is inserted into your large intestine so the doctor can actually see what is going on.  You may be asked to swallow small capsules that can be monitored on x-ray as they travel through your digestive system.  Your doctor may also do tests designed to see if the muscles near your anus are working properly and are able to push the stool out.

What Can You Do To Prevent Constipation?

Start by drinking plenty of water, fruit juices and other liquids – the more the better.  Start eating a high fiber diet.  You can add fiber to your diet naturally by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, and beans.  You can also buy powder fiber supplements at health food stores and even at most grocery stores.  Add fiber supplements to your diet slowly and drink plenty of liquids when you do.  Some people experience gas or bloating when first starting to take fiber supplements.  If these conditions persist for more than a couple of days discontinue the supplements and discuss the problem with your doctor.  Get plenty of exercise and, if your doctor recommends them, take laxatives.  And – very important – use the bathroom whenever you feel the urge to have a bowel movement.  Holding it in can be a cause of many problems.

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