Constipation is a common digestive problem that can affect people of all ages. It is defined by having fewer than three bowel movements per week or bowel movements that are dry, hard, small, or difficult to pass.
Although some people may think that having a bowel movement every day is necessary, the American Gastroenterological Association say this isn't always the case. Some people may have bowel movements every day and still have constipation if stools are dry and hard.
Others may only have bowel movements three times a week but have regular and soft stools. The hardness and consistency of stool may be a better signal of constipation than the frequency of bowel movements.
Many people will experience constipation at some point. Traveling, changes in routine, or certain foods may cause harder bowel movements in the short term.
Although constipation isn't usually serious, it is often uncomfortable. It can cause stomach pain, bloating, and nausea. Short-term constipation typically goes away on its own after the person returns to normal routines and eating habits.
In some cases, constipation can last for weeks or longer. This can lead to long-term health problems, including:
- Hemorrhoids: enlarged veins in the anus that can cause pain, irritation, bleeding, and itching
- Small tears in the anus that can cause pain or itching
- A large mass of stool becoming stuck in the rectum
- Rectal prolapse, where the rectum slips out of its normal position
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Treating constipation with olive oil
Olive oil may be a safe and healthy way to get stools moving again. The fats in olive oil can help make the insides of the bowel smoother, making stools easier to pass. It can also help the stool hold in more water, keeping it softer.
Olive oil makes stools softer and the insides of the bowel smoother.
One tablespoon of olive oil, taken on an empty stomach in the morning, may relieve constipation for many healthy adults. Taking more than this amount can lead to diarrhea and cramps and is not recommended.
Olive oil is not recommended for babies and children with constipation. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommend a small amount of apple or pear juice, Karo syrup, or pureed prunes for infants. Toddlers and older children may get relief with high-fiber foods such as prunes, apricots, and whole grain cereals.
If dietary changes don't help, children should see a doctor for additional treatment.
Other health benefits of olive oil
Olive oil is not only helpful for constipation but has other health benefits too. Olive oil is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, which is linked to a lower risk of certain diseases and longer life.
The oil has anti-inflammatory effects that may reduce the risk of diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, arthritis, and degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. It may also decrease a person's risk of depression.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend taking olive oil for better heart health due to its heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. Healthy people over the age of 2 should get 25 to 35 percent of their daily calories from monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, the AHA say. Consuming mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and limiting saturated and trans fats can help improve cholesterol levels.
Olive oil also contains vitamin E, an important nutrient that is lacking in many people's diets.
Although different kinds of olive oil are available in stores, extra virgin olive oil may have the most health benefits. When an oil is labeled "extra virgin," it means the fruit was simply pressed to extract the oil.
Other types such as "light" olive oil may have been extracted with chemicals or other processes. This can refine and filter out some of the natural olive compounds.
Other oils as constipation treatment
Using oils for constipation relief isn't a new trend. Castor oil has been used for years to treat constipation, though its action differs from olive oil's mild effects.
Castor oil affects the muscles in the intestines, causing them to contract and move. This often stimulates the bowel to pass stools.
Pregnant women are sometimes advised to take castor oil to induce labor in an overdue pregnancy, as it can cause the uterus to contract. Pregnant women should discuss castor oil or any medications or supplements with their doctor before taking them.
Mineral oil helps soften the stool in a similar manner to olive oil. A study in the Journal of Renal Nutrition suggests that olive oil worked just as well as mineral oil for patients undergoing dialysis suffering from constipation. The patients took 4 milliliters of olive oil per day.
Other treatments for constipation
For mild cases of constipation, lifestyle changes such as drinking more water, getting more exercise, and eating more fiber are often recommended. If these measures fail to provide enough relief, over-the-counter laxatives may help.
Laxatives should be used in moderation unless a doctor says otherwise. The bowel can become dependent on them for stimulating its muscles.
Many treatment options are available, and work in different ways to relieve constipation:
Other treatment options for constipation include fiber supplements and laxatives.
- Fiber supplements add bulk to stool and make it easier to pass. Examples: Citrucel, FiberCon, Metamucil.
- Stool softeners help get fluid into the stool and are often recommended after surgery or childbirth. Examples: Colace, docusate.
- Osmotic laxatives help the intestine hold more fluid, rather than absorb it. This helps soften stools. Examples: Milk of Magnesia, Miralax, Sorbitol.
- Lubricants help make the stool more slippery so it can easily pass out of the colon. Although olive oil is considered a lubricant when taken as a laxative, other lubricants are available. Examples: mineral oil, Fleet, Zymenol.
- Stimulant laxatives cause contractions and movement in the bowel. In general, these should only be used with more serious cases of constipation and under a doctor's guidance. Examples: Correctol, Dulcolax, Senocot.
When to see a doctor
Some people may become dependent on laxatives if they use them for a long time, especially stimulant laxatives. People who feel they cannot have a bowel movement without taking a laxative first should talk with their doctor. With a doctor's help, many people can be weaned off laxatives or find other ways to relieve constipation.
Treating occasional constipation with olive oil or another product may help avoid discomfort and has health benefits.
Long-term constipation can be a sign of another health problem or may be a reaction to certain medications. People who find that their bowel movements are consistently hard, dry, or painful to pass should consult their doctor for advice.
Causes of constipation
Constipation can be caused by a wide variety of factors. Some of the most common include:
- Hormonal changes, including pregnancy or after childbirth
- Certain medications, including water pills, antacids, prescription pain relievers, antidepressants, and iron supplements
- Too little fiber in the diet
- Lack of exercise
- Certain health problems, such as underactive thyroid and diabetes
- Problems with the digestive system, such as irritable bowel syndrome
- Recent surgery
- Ignoring the urge to use the bathroom
Sometimes a person may have constipation without a clear cause. Older adults and women are affected more frequently than other groups.