Constipation is usually defined by three or fewer bowel movements per week, and the condition is considered chronic when it persists for several months. However, the meaning of constipation varies from person to person with some women describing constipation as straining with bowel movements, passing hard stool, bloating and abdominal discomfort or a sensation of incomplete evacuation after a bowel movement.
Many factors raise the risk for chronic constipation including being female, advanced age, inactivity, low fiber diet, low caloric intake and taking multiple medications. Pregnancy is also associated with constipation. As many as 75% of all pregnant women report experiencing some form of bowel problems – including constipation – during the first trimester of pregnancy.
The cause of chronic constipation is not clear, although many factors can play a role. Hormonal imbalances, water absorption problems in the bowel, pelvic floor disorders, psychological issues, hemorrhoids and low motility have all been linked to constipation.
Constipation is reported more frequently in older women, but the condition should not be considered a normal part of aging. Some health experts attribute constipation in women of advanced age to neurologic health conditions such as Parkinson disease or diabetes, increased use of medications, poor fluid intake, immobility and dementia.
To reduce your risk of constipation and relieve symptoms, it is important to develop a bowel routine. Since bowel activity is highest in the morning, make it a habit to empty your bowels during the morning hours each day. Never delay bowel movements, instead, go immediately when nature calls.
Other tips gynecologists recommend to women to keep bowel movements regular include routine exercise, drinking at least eight glasses of water a day and increasing dietary fiber. High fiber foods include citrus fruits, beans, carrots, apples, oats and nuts. Wheat bran and whole-wheat flour are also high in fiber and can help regulate the bowels.
If you feel you need a laxative or stool softener, talk with your gynecologist about whether these medications are right for you, and, if so, which type to take. Laxatives should only be taken for a short period of time, since long-term use can be harmful.