Dr. Reed Q & A – Constipation

Reed V. Tuckson, MD, is Executive Vice President and Chief of Medical Affairs at UnitedHealth Group. A Fellow of the American College of Physicians, Dr. Reed is a nationally recognized speaker on preventive health and clinical medicine.

Q:   Dear Dr. Reed:

I’m 72 years old and have problems with constipation.  My doctor gave me samples of stool softeners, but I really want to avoid taking any medicine.  What else can I do to help my digestion so I don’t get “stopped up”?

A:   Constipation is a fairly common problem for people of all ages, but can be especially troublesome for older adults. Constipation is defined as having infrequent bowel movements and/or ones are hard to pass.  Most people have a regular cycle that keeps them comfortable, but there is no rule that you have to have a bowel movement every day.

If you have constipation, although it is not usually a symptom of a more serious problem, it is important to see your doctor.

Once you know that your constipation is not from a serious illness, prevention is easy.  First, start eating a diet rich in fiber (fruits, vegetables and whole grains).  Fiber based diets keep your digestive system functioning regularly.

Next, be sure you are drinking ample amounts of fluids, especially water.  Fluids provide lubrication that can help the digestive system work better.  Also, regular exercise is important for overall health, but many people find that it also helps with digestion.

Although I hope these simple things work for you, sometimes you might need to purchase over the counter fiber, stool softeners or laxatives to help. Taken properly, these products can be very safe and effective.

If these simple suggestions don’t work, your doctor might recommend certain medications that can help you avoid the more serious problems that can result from ongoing constipation.

Do you have questions about your health? There is so much information out there that it can be hard to make sense of it all and, more importantly, apply it in our own lives. Dr. Reed Tuckson, Executive Vice President and Chief of Medical Affairs at UnitedHealth Group, hears this all the time as he travels the country speaking about preventive healthcare and clinical medicine and talking to readers of the “Ask Dr. Reed Q&A” column or his book, The Doctor in the Mirror. Dr. Reed cannot provide individual responses but he may address your idea in a future column, which you can read right here on Facebook. If you are seeking personal advice, please consult your doctor, specialist, or nurse.