by Kimberly Allen, RN
In these days of health conscious activism many people are actively trying to take charge of their own health. With health care costs so high many are actively seeking to prevent chronic health issues and there’s a whole lot of advice out there on how to do it. One of the most common issues is diet. It seems like everyone is telling us we need to eat a high fiber diet. It is true that we need fiber in our diet and also true that many people could definitely benefit by increasing their fiber. However, it is also important to remember a high fiber diet can be both good and bad. It primarily depends on how much and what type of fiber you consume everyday as well as how your body reacts to it.
In the past dietary fiber was referred to as “roughage” and I still hear people call it “rabbit” food. But, exactly what is dietary fiber? It’s the part of the plant that the human body is unable to digest. There are 2 types of dietary fibers; soluble fiber, which means it dissolves in water. This type forms a gel when dissolved in water and can be found in a variety of foods including apples, and citrus fruits as well as in vegetable like peas, beans and carrots. It can also be found in oats and barley as well as psyllium. Soluble fiber has been shown to assist with decreasing your blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Then there’s insoluble fiber which doesn’t dissolve in water. This type of fiber is most commonly found in foods like wheat bran and whole wheat flour as well as nuts and beans. It can also be found in vegetables like cauliflower, potatoes, and Green beans. The insoluble fiber enhances the movement of food residue through your digestive system and gives bulk to your stool. Most of our plant based foods contain both types of fiber giving you the benefits of both.
The current recommendation by the US Department of Health is that adults should consume from 12g to 24g of dietary fiber everyday with an average of 18g per day. However, according to the Medlline-Plus Medical Encyclopedia the average adult in the US consumes only 10-15g per day. Although increasing the fiber in your diet can have a significant impact on you health it’s important to remember too much of anything isn’t always a good thing. Also, if you are currently eating a very low fiber diet and you try to suddenly switch to a high fiber diet you could develop some adverse symptoms. So it’s important to increase the fiber in your diet slowly and choose the right type of fiber. There are pro’s and con’s to almost everything including fiber. There are significant health benefits to adding fiber to your diet including improving your digestive function as well as lowering you cholesterol levels. Eating foods high in fiber content can also help you maintain control of your blood sugar levels. According to the Harvard School of Public Health fiber reduces the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream. Foods high in fiber content also can help you maintain and even lose weight. Since fiber can’t be digested by your body it doesn’t have any calories, this means it adds non-caloric bulk to your food giving you the feeling of being full while consuming less calories. While on the other side there are also con’s to a high fiber diet especially if you change your diet and eat too much fiber too soon. The Mayo Clinic states that a high fiber diet can lead to numerous gastrointestinal issues including gas, bloating and cramping as well as abdominal pain. The University of Maryland Medical Center states “too much fiber can slow the absorption of certain nutrients”. It can also impair the absorption of certain medications including diabetic medications, Digoxin, which is a medication that improves your heart beat, as well as thyroid medications and certain antidepressants. Also, many people don’t drink enough water, fiber requires alot of water to move through your system effectively. A pharmacologist named Konstantin Monastyrsky has even written a book called “Fiber Menace”. In it he discusses how after years on a vegetarian diet eating high fiber foods he developed significant health issues. Others have reported developing severe intestinal damage due to undiagnosed Celiac disease.
The bottom line is everything in moderation, even too much of a good thing can be harmful. It’s important to eat a balanced diet including foods high in both soluble and insoluble fiber as well as nutrient dense low fiber foods.
It is the most common complaint related to the digestive system in the US. It makes you feel bloated and irritable and just plain miserable yet no one wants to talk about it, chronic constipation. Chronic constipation is responsible for over 2.5 million visits to the doctor’s office with over $700 million spent on medications to relieve chronic constipation every year in the US. It affects both men and women although it is twice as common in women than men. It is also more common among the elderly.
There are various opinions of what chronic constipation is depending on who you talk to. Some people define it as having difficulty passing stool, while others say it’s feeling like you have to go, but it just doesn’t happen. However, the most commonly used definition is having less than 3 bowel movements a week for several months. Most adults average between 3 to 21 bowel movements per week which is considered with in normal limits. One bowel movement a day is the pattern that has been found to be the most common, however, less than 50% of the population experience that pattern on a regular basis. Most people in general have irregular bowel patterns, they may not have a bowel movement everyday or even the same number of bowel movements everyday. In addition to that as we age the number of bowel movements tends to decrease. “Baby boomers” are more at risk for developing chronic constipation because as we get older and retire there’s a tendency to become more sedentary and as you become more sedentary you tend to eat and drink less as well as eat less fiber. These habits all play a crucial role in the development of chronic constipation. Then you add to that most people believe they should be having a bowel movement everyday even after they slow down so they start taking over the counter laxatives to get relief and continue what they believe to be “normal” bowel habits. This only makes the problem worse.
So what causes chronic constipation? When your colon muscles become slow or sluggish or when your colon absorbs too much water the stool tends to move more slowly through your colon causing your stools to become dry and hard. There are a variety of factors that can lead to chronic constipation ranging from inactivity and poor hydration as well as poor dietary habits to certain diseases and conditions as well as certain medications.
So whats the best way to relieve chronic constipation? Relieving chronic constipation requires a lifestyle approach that is multifaceted. First it’s important to be regular, develop the habit of going to the bathroom at the same time everyday. Second listen to your body, if you feel the urge to go, go. Don’t ignore it until later, the longer you retain the stool the more difficult it will be to go when you want to. It’s also important to relax. Stress has a significant impact on how your whole body functions including your bowels. Drinking plenty of fluids and bulking up your diet also improves bowel function. You should drink at least 8 glasses of liquid, water is preferable, and even more on really hot days. Adding wheat bran to your diet can add bulk and improve the movement of stool through your colon. Yes, the use of medications and laxatives can relieve your constipation. However, they should always be used with caution and only for short periods of time, and you should always consult your Dr before taking any medication.
If you develop a change in your normal bowel habits or are experiencing chronic constipation you should contact your Dr for an evaluation because it could be an early symptom that something more serious is going on like colon cancer or some other medical condition. If this is the case the underlying cause of your chronic constipation will also need to be treated.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.