The recent development of a vibrating capsule that may alleviate constipation will undoubtedly make a big splash in toilet bowls across the country. The non-drug is aimed at people with chronic idiopathic constipation (defined as persistent difficulty passing stools, reduced stool frequency and incomplete evacuation) and has drawn attention to a particularly uncomfortable subject. Constipation is awful on its own but it has connections with some really awful diseases, like cancer, that might go unnoticed if someone is distracted by the pain in their gut.
Before readers get too deep, it is important to note that some people are more likely to suffer from chronic idiopathic constipation (CIC) than others. According to a study referenced by Ironwood Pharmaceuticals and Forest Laboratories, adults aged 35 and older made up 84 percent of sufferers, Caucasians 82 percent, and women 56 percent. A person falling into all three of those categories could be at a high-risk. Cancer, on the other hand, is a term that covers many forms of malignancy and can affect areas of the body in no way related to the bowels; it is therefore more difficult to narrow down in the same way as CIC. Certain types are more predominant in some demographics than others. If anything, cancer and constipation connect many demographics.
There are several causes of constipation, some of which can be avoided and some of which cannot. The simple and easy ones to avoid are dehydration, insufficient fiber, laxative overuse, excessive dairy and red meat consumption and inactivity. Dehydration is arguably the easiest to avoid. Not drinking enough water affects more than your stomach. It can cause headaches, irritability, confusion, heart palpitations, even fainting and seizures in severe cases. On a side note, some of the causes of dehydration cannot be helped or have causal factors other than simply not using the Brita enough. For instance, people with diabetes or extreme burns have different hydration requirements.
Many Americans have insufficient fiber in their diets, but there are many tasty foods which contain one of the two kinds of fiber, both of which are helpful. Oats and the insides of beans can help lower cholesterol and keep blood glucose within normal levels. This can help with hypertension and type-2 diabetes — which has its own connection to cancer and constipation. The other kind of fiber – found in strawberries (particularly the seeds), apples and bean skins – helps keep things moving, so to speak, and is a direct preventative of constipation.
Red meat and dairy products can be problematic. Ice cream and cheeseburgers taste good, but anything in excess can be bad for you. In the case of milk, cheese, and other dairy products, people who are lactose intolerant may suffer worse than others, as the gas produced by the inability to digest the enzyme can lead to difficulties in the bathroom.
When people fail to get enough of water or fiber and ingest too much red meat and dairy products, they may resort to laxatives. They are intended for the occasional relief of constipation, but taken continually they can be detrimental to the health of the colon and lead to weakness of the muscles required for proper peristalsis. The positive effects of fiber over time could be compared to the deleterious effects of laxatives overtime: eat fiber regularly and health can improve; eat laxatives regularly and health can suffer.
As for inactivity, it is easy to guess that lack of exercise can have a negative effect on just about every aspect of a person’s physiology. Inactivity, among other things, can lead to poor glucose processing which in turn can lead to type-2 diabetes; additionally it slows and weakens the muscles that control the motion of food through the digestive tract.
So colorectal cancer can cause constipation; lack of exercise and diets high in red meat can cause colorectal forms of the disease as well as constipation and diabetes. Unfortunately, there are some common causes that connect constipation and cancer that can’t be avoided as directly. Pregnancy can cause constipation, for example, as can some neurological conditions like Parkinson’s. Advanced age is also a risk factor for both conditions. Type-2 diabetes falls somewhere in the middle of the connection between constipation and cancer, in that it is an indicator of overall health and initially preventable. If you have type-2 diabetes already it can cause colorectal polyps, but this type of diabetes can be avoided with proper diet and exercise, which also prevent constipation.
So while Caucasian women well over 35 that do not own a pair of running shoes, love cheeseburgers, and hate oatmeal are the most common constipation sufferers, and if big pharma is making mechanical pills to help people poop, it is time to look at the numbers. Nearly 19 percent of Americans are chronically constipated, and some people of certain demographics within that group should be aware of the connections between constipation and cancer. That might be at least one person in ten. Instead of laughing their way around the conference table trying to guess who is backed-up, they could substitute some roughage like a salad for that cheeseburger at lunch. It would be a start.
By Aliya Tyus-Barnwell