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In general practice constipation is an important symptom that prompts patients to see their physician. There seems to be a lot of confusion in the general public about this topic. It starts by defining what a normal bowel movement is. There are enormous cultural differences. For instance, in Africa where the population eats on average a much larger amount of fiber, the bowel movements are much bulkier.

Sir Dr. Burkitt, the famous English surgeon, examined bowel movements (stools) of African tribes in comparison to his English countrymen and came to the conclusion that in the Western world we need to remedy our constipation problem and cancer of the colon problem by eating more fiber.

He is still right: fiber is mainly treating the constipation (not preventing the cancer), but the chemicals that are also in the vegetables contain a multitude of natural anti-carcinogenic substances, which provide the powerful preventative action against colon cancer and many other cancers. Lycopene is one of these and is found in tomatoes and tomato products.

Sir Dr. Burkitt’s observation that high bulk food (with vegetables and green leaves) prevents cancer is as valid today as it was in the early part of the 1900’s. Next there is the question how often we should defecate. In a country where high fiber intake is the norm a daily or twice daily bowel movement is normal. However, in the Western world in highly developed countries the norm may be a bowel movement every other day. However, I do believe that this is unhealthy and is likely the reason for a high colon cancer rate. This is supported by the literature (Ref.2). To answer this difficult question of what a normal bowel movement rate would be, the answer is likely once every day, but those who eat a lot of vegetables may often get a second bowel movement during the day due to the extra bulk. Gastroenterologists now feel that twice per day is likely better than once.


There are different types of constipation.

Acute constipation

This is a condition where there is a sudden change from a normal bowel pattern to a bowel movement, which is 1 or 2 days delayed.

There might be bloatedness, a sense of fullness in the abdomen, particularly in the left lower abdomen and occasionally sharp stinging pains. This could be an ominous sign of a partial closing down of the colon lumen by a tumor. But it could be harmless as the patient had become bedridden and there was less physical activity. A case like this needs to be examined by a physician to rule out more serious problems like diverticulitis, head trauma, spinal cord lesion, side effect of drugs( iron salts, pain pills, tranquilizers, sedatives).

Chronic constipation

Chronic constipation cases that start insidiously, but then remain despite taking a high fiber diet, make the doctor think about other underlying causes such as hypothyroidism (= low thyroid function) or other metabolic causes such as hypercalcemia and uremia from early kidney failure.

We find that elderly people become too inactive, which lowers the natural peristalsis of the gut, and this combined with poor eating habits and chewing problems because of poor teeth is often responsible for the chronic constipation. Also the elderly often are on multiple drugs, all of which have a weak “anticholinergic” side-effect, which translates into suppressing peristalsis chemically and resulting in constipation. Psychogenic factors and chronic depression as well as obsessive-compulsive behavior will often lead to a hyper awareness of one’s own bowel pattern, which is unhealthy and needs to be addressed by counseling, once the doctor has ruled out any serious cause of the chronic constipation. The physician will examine with a rectal examination to rule out lower rectal lesions, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, benign polyps or cancer. The next test that gastroenterologists are using is a rectosigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy (= the Rolls Royce of colon exams). Occasionally a double Barium enema is done to look at the lining of the bowel wall.

If the problem is left alone, chronic constipation can lead to impaction as shown on the image.

Impaction, The End Stage Of Chronic Constipation

Impaction, The End Stage Of Chronic Constipation

Treatment for constipation

Obviously the cause needs to be identified meaning that a physician needs to be consulted first. If no serious disease is found (cancer of the colon or rectum) and no metabolic disease is present that needs treatment, then the following steps likely will be recommended.


Treatment for constipation (simple steps that help)

  • Food intake needs to be modified to include as much fresh and steamed vegetables as tolerated. This will lead to bulk in the colon and this will make the stool softer thus allowing it to pass through the rectum and anal canal easier. The other advantage of this simple step is that the bulkiness of the stool triggers the normal peristalsis movement of the colon moving the contents towards the rectum and out. By decreasing the passage time in the colon less water is absorbed, keeping the stool soft and pliable until it gets pushed through the anal canal. This is easily achieved by a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Cereals containing bran, slow rolled oats( not instant) are also useful particularly for breakfast. Cut down on meat and fat consumption.
  • A simple tool is an enema with lukewarm water (1500 ml or 50 fl.oz.) in a Faultless enema bag without any additives in it. The person who gets the enema needs to lay on the left side so that the water can flow in easily. When entering the nozzle into the anal canal, do not force it, but use a bit of Vaseline ointment to facilitate entrance. The response usually comes within 5 to 10 minutes following the enema. It works by dilatation of the bowel wall, which leads to a reflex bowel contraction. This would be safe to take every day, but usually should not have to be taken more than two or three times per week even in chronic constipation.
  • Next, if this is not tolerated or does not appeal to the patient I would recommend a bulking agent such as psyllium (brand names: Prodiem Plain, Metamucil, Novo-Mucilax) and bran (Brand names: Kellogg’s All Bran and Post’s bran flakes). These are mild laxatives, which are safe to take every day and which will not make the patient hypokalemic.
  • Osmotic agent: One or two tablespoons of sorbitol as a 70% solution is a hyperosmotic solution, which stays in the gut and draws water by osmosis into the colon. The bulking effect creates peristalsis and the water retention makes the stool softer. It takes often 1 or two days to get the full effect. There can be transient abdominal cramps until the stool is passed. One variation of this theme is to give sorbitol in a mix with other osmotic agents as a micro-enema in the form of Microlax (from Pharmacia and Upjohn).
  • The “emergency break”: Occasionally all of the above is simply too weak and the constipated person who normally is controlled with the above measures, simply could not go to the bathroom for several days. Bisacodyl (brand name: Dulcolax) and sennosides (brand names: Ex-lax Sugar Coated Pills and Senokot products) can be used on a one-time only basis. Increase your vegetable and fruit intake, cut down on refined foods, which are devoid of fiber.


I do not recommend any other products because they are expensive and not as effective. With mineral oil, for instance, there are dangers of aspiration with subsequent life threatening lipid pneumonia. Even with the suggestions above, one should always start on top and work with dietary changes first. It takes a few days to see the effect. Avoid the “emergency break” on a regular basis. This would be called laxative abuse and has devastating consequences as the body loses potassium and this in turn leads to secondary hyperaldosteronism (an increase of a mineralocorticoid hormone from the adrenal glands) and possible kidney damage (Bartter’s syndrome).

The key to remember is that laxatives are only occasional emergency breaks that should not be taken daily.

Because of its role in nutrient absorption and body detoxification the digestive system plays a direct role in overall health and wellness. When the colon is unclean, waste and toxins can become trapped placing an extra strain on the detoxification organs and reducing immunity, thus causing illness.


Remember: ” Do not abuse laxatives!”


The other fact is that when bisacodyl and sennosides are taken daily, they stop working after a few weeks because the body gets used to the medication. So by treating these laxatives like an “emergency break only”, the colon is responding to the medication when it is needed and all the other potential dangers like Bartter’s syndrome and hypokalemia are not a problem.

Here is a site that shows an image of how bowel movements form in the colon.



1. DM Thompson: The 46th Annual St. Paul’s Hospital CME Conference for Primary Physicians, Nov. 14-17, 2000, Vancouver/B.C./Canada

2. C Ritenbaugh Curr Oncol Rep 2000 May 2(3): 225-233.

3. PA Totten et al. J Infect Dis 2001 Jan 183(2): 269-276.

4. M Ohkawa et al. Br J Urol 1993 Dec 72(6):918-921.

5. Textbook of Primary Care Medicine, 3rd ed., Copyright © 2001 Mosby, Inc., pages 976-983: “Chapter 107 – Acute Abdomen and Common Surgical Abdominal Problems”.

6. Marx: Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice, 5th ed., Copyright © 2002 Mosby, Inc. , p. 185:”Abdominal pain”.

7. Feldman: Sleisenger & Fordtran’s Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease, 7th ed., Copyright © 2002 Elsevier, p. 71: “Chapter 4 – Abdominal Pain, Including the Acute Abdomen”.

8. Ferri: Ferri’s Clinical Advisor: Instant Diagnosis and Treatment, 2004 ed., Copyright © 2004 Mosby, Inc.

9. Suzanne Somers: “Breakthrough” Eight Steps to Wellness– Life-altering Secrets from Today’s Cutting-edge Doctors”, Crown Publishers, 2008

Last modified: October 23, 2014

This outline is only a teaching aid to patients and should stimulate you to ask the right questions when seeing your doctor. However, the responsibility of treatment stays in the hands of your doctor and you.