Food and beverages consumed during the day our body can’t use immediately, so all we eat and drink has to be broken down in the digestive system before. This extremely effective system consists of a large number of organs with specific roles in digestion. The digestive system is responsible for the breakdown and absorption of vitamins, minerals and other vital nutrients from food. Interesting fact is that during a 75-year life our intestines process about 30 tons of food and 50 000 l of liquids.
Therefore, the maintenance of a healthy digestive system is an important factor in maintaining the overall health.
At the same time, a healthy digestive system significantly reduces the likelihood of digestive disorders such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea and facilitates regular elimination of waste substances from the body.
The digestive system is home to large number of good as well as potentially bad bacteria. The balance of these bacteria, known as intestinal microbiota, supports healthy digestion.
Why do we need healthy intestinal microbiota?
Intestinal microbiota is composed of billions of microorganisms that live in human digestive system and has a metabolic activity almost equal to individual organs. Therefore, the modern science begins to consider it “an organ within the organ.” The intestinal microbiota has many useful functions through which affects our health.
The bacteria are involved in the breakdown of waste substances, are active in the synthesis of certain compounds, are important for the maturation of the intestinal mucosa and the development of intestinal immune system. Less familiar, but extremely interesting fact is that more than 70% of all immune cells are located in the digestive system. It means that bowels contain more immune cells than any other part of the body. So digestive system is actually the first line of defense for our body against external challenges.
Stress, illness, age, antibiotics and/or certain medications, poor diet and lack of fluids can disrupt this well-organized system. Imbalance of the microbiota can lead to a reduction in the number of beneficial bacteria in the intestines, which can result in the digestive disturbances.
Intestinal disorders such as constipation are in lot of cases associated with the disturbance of the intestinal microbiota. Without regular bowel movements stool remains too long in the intestine which consequently leads to changes of the bacterial flora and intestinal imbalance.
So, because healthy intestinal microbiota favoures good digestion it is very important not only to solve the constipation but also to reestablish the balance of the intestinal microbiota.
What is constipation?
A healthy digestive system is of high importance for personal wellbeing and overall quality of life. Regular digestion differs from person to person. Depending on the diet, age and daytime activities, bowel movements 2 to 3 times daily or 2 to 3 times a week is considered normal.
But, due to a modern way of life and chronic lack of time many people suffer from digestive disorders. Constipation is a problem from which occasionally suffers almost 30% of the population.
One of five adults occasionally suffers from constipation, and two thirds of affected are women. Women are particularly vulnerable and one reason for that are regular hormonal changes from puberty to menopause.
The causes of constipation are various. They often lie in poor diet and lack of exercise, but stress, climate change, jet lag, travel and any other changes in a daily routine can also disrupt the intestinal balance and cause constipation.
Symptoms differ from person to person, but usual symptoms of constipation are:
- less than three bowel movements weekly
- hard stools
- difficulty passing stools
- abdominal discomfort or bloating
- incomplete emptying
If the symptoms are present for 3 months or more it is considered a chronic constipation.
What causes constipation?
The common causes of constipation are:
- Poor diet, low in fibers
The most common lifestyle-related cause of constipation is poor diet. Eating slowly and chewing food thoroughly as well as not skipping meals has a significant impact on regular digestion. In addition to how we eat, it is important what we eat. High intake of meat, dairy products, eggs as well as refined sugar and starch and low intake of dietary fibers often causes constipation.
- Low intake of liquids
Drinking sufficient amounts of liquids every day is very important because they add fluid to the colon and bulk to stool, therefore making bowel movements softer and stool easier to pass. However one has to be very careful when choosing the right source of liquids. Liquids that contain caffeine, such as coffee and energy drinks will worsen one’s symptoms by causing dehydration. Alcohol is also a beverage that causes dehydration.
- Lack of exercise or any moderate physical activity (especially in the elderly)
Lack of exercise or any moderate activity can easily lead to constipation, especially in older people, but the reason for that is not yet well established.
- Changes in life or daily routine (pregnancy, travel,…)
In general, when ones’ daily routine and normal diet is altered or disrupted bowels can become constipated.
Pregnancy is a big change in every woman’s life. During these nine months almost half of women struggles with constipation. Experts say that the constipation in early pregnancy is mainly due to hormonal changes and slower digestion. Food and fluids pass more slowly through the digestive system and more fluid is absorbed from the colon, leading to harder stools and difficulties with bowel movements. Later in pregnancy, increased uterus creates extra pressure on the intestines which also affects bowels.
- Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement
Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement may eventually lead to not feeling the need to go to the toilet, which can then lead to constipation. Some people delay having a bowel movement because they are too busy or do not feel comfortable using toilets outside their homes. Others ignore the urge because of an emotional stress. Children may postpone having a bowel movement because of stressful toilet training or because they previously experienced having painful bowel movements.
Constipation can occur as a side effect of using some medicines. It is important to check the leaflet that comes within the medicine box to see the list of possible side effects and whether constipation is considered to be one of them.
- Specific medical conditions
Different medical conditions can lead to constipation, especially those causing poor motility of the bowel.
How can you help yourself?
Since lifestyle factors, particularly lack of exercise and diet low in fibers, cause constipation in most cases, lifestyle changes are crucial.
- Balanced diet rich in fibers
Dietary fibers are a mix of carbohydrates found only in foods of plant origin – fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole grains. They are divided into two groups: soluble and insoluble. Soluble are usually soft and can be found for example in peas, apples, plums, broccoli and rice, and insoluble are indigestible parts of fruits and vegetables such as seeds and cereals. Dietary fibers go undigested through the digestive tract, attract large amounts of water in the intestine thus increasing the stool volume, making it softer and easier to pass. Also, „good“ intestinal bacteria use it as food so fibers also ensure a healthy intestinal flora.World Health Organization recommends at least 20 grams of fibers a day, but people with digestive problems should increase the intake to at least 30-40 g a day.
- Keeping hydrated
Experts advise at least 8 glasses (2 l) of fluids a day and the best choices are still and sparkling mineral water. Beverages high in sugars (e.g. soft drinks), caffeine and alcohol don’t bring the body necessary nutrients and should be avoided.
- Regular physical activity
Regular exercise keeps the body fit as well as the intestines. Encourage daily activity of at least 30 minutes per day.
Also, be sure to establish a good routine and reduce stress significantly.