Q: My 6-year-old son has chronic constipation and we need some help. I don’t want to have to give him a laxative or other medication. Are there more natural ways to help him out?
A: Constipation is a common and often distressing problem. As health conditions go, constipation — usually defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week or having stools that are hard, dry and difficult to pass — rarely makes the news. But it's probably not news to most people that almost everyone suffers from it from time to time. Women and people over age 65 are especially affected. About 42 million people at a time, or 15 percent of the population, have constipation, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Many of those people will, sooner or later, find themselves looking for relief and finding what can be a confusing array of products. Among those products: enemas and oral solutions containing sodium phosphate, an ingredient the FDA says can cause dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, especially when taken too often or in higher-than-recommended doses. Most at risk, the FDA says, are: young children, people over age 55, those taking several common medications, including diuretics and ibuprofen, and those with kidney disease, heart problems, bowel obstructions or inflamed colons.
Before most people reach for any laxative, they should look at their diet and lifestyle. The ultimate goal is prevention. Eating more fiber — from fruits, vegetables and grains — is the first step. Fiber adds bulk to stools and helps move digestion along.
There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is the “glue” that holds everything together. It is found in foods like oats, apples, lentils, flaxmeal, oranges and pears. Add two to three servings each day. Insoluble fiber adds bulk and helps keep things moving. Sources of insoluble fiber include whole grains, corn, broccoli, dark leafy greens and carrots. Increase fiber-containing foods slowly and make sure to drink plenty of water.