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Posted on: July 12, 2018 at 12:42 pm
Last updated: July 19, 2018 at 12:29 pm

Despite the fact that we don’t openly talk about going to the bathroom, especially in regard to bowel movements, it is one of the most important things we all need to do to be healthy.  But most of us don’t really know what’s considered normal and what our bowel movements should be like.

Many of us may not even realize that we are technically constipated!

Studies estimate that a lot of us in North America are constipated, between 12% to 19%, that’s 63 million people, not a small number.  

Jump to…

What Causes Constipation?

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what causes constipation in adults

It takes approximately 18 hours for food to move through the body from the time it’s chewed in the mouth to where it’s digested in the stomach and onto the small and large intestines where it will be eliminated.  However, this bowel transit time often takes much longer than the 18 hours.  Constipation symptoms can vary from one person to another, but generally infrequency of bowel movements as well as difficulty passing stool and straining are all symptoms of constipation.

There are many factors that contribute to constipation and irregular bowel movements:   

  • Chronic constipation is much more likely to increase with age, which makes it a common challenge for the elderly, especially when compounded with the use of medications, many of which cause constipation as a side effect.  But, these are not the only factors that contribute to constipation and there are several things that we can do each day to improve our bowel health.
  • A lack of fiber from fresh vegetables and fruits in your diet can cause things to get backed up. A mixture of both soluble fiber (which helps bulk and form stool) and insoluble fiber (which helps promote movement of waste through the bowel) are important.
  • Water is essential for your body to form bowel movements and remove them, and without enough of it stools harden and become more difficult to remove. 
  • Food allergies and sensitivities, such as lactose intolerance, can also cause constipation.  
  • Having the proper balance of bacteria in your digestive tract is also essential for proper bowel movements, and dysbiosis (the imbalance of gut bacteria in your gut) can contribute to constipation.
  • Physical movement and exercise support proper removal of waste.  A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to constipation.

What’s the Deal with Metamucil Products?

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is metamucil safe

Metamucil’s key ingredient is psyllium husk, a soluble fiber that soaks up water and holds it in stool, which helps make it softer and easier to pass. Psyllium also has a laxative effect and helps increase transit time.  Unfortunately, Metamucil contains other added ingredients that act as fillers.

Their simplest product, called Metamucil Free, contains 4 grams of sugar in 1 rounded teaspoon. Sugar is one of the biggest contributing factors to dysbiosis and creating bacterial imbalance in the digestive tract, which can be one of the factors contributing to constipation.  

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Other Metumucil products contain additional fillers, such as maltodextrin, aspartame, flavorings and food coloring.  Maltodextrin is used to bulk up products since its cheap. But, it’s not doing anything to help get things moving in your bowel or reduce constipation.

Studies have found that maltodextrin can damage the good bacteria in the gut and cause an imbalance, which can increase the risk for constipation.  Aspartame is an artificial sweetener, and these chemically derived products have been linked with a variety of health issues including altering the gut microbiome and even cancer. Food colouring, specifically Yellow 6 found in Metumucil, contains benzidene, which is linked with causing cancer, so to be safe it’s best to avoid artificial colourings like Yellow 6.

What Fiber Can I Use Instead?

Psyllium Husk

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You can easily find psyllium on its own, without added fillers, sugars and artificial sweeteners and dyes.  By including plain psyllium in your diet, you will get all the benefits of this wonderful soluble fiber. You can buy psyllium in capsule or powder form.  If you are using the powder, it’s easiest to start by stirring 1 tsp into a glass of water and drink that every day. You can continue to increase your dosage if you don’t notice a difference until your bowel movement improve. Since psyllium absorbs water, you’ll need to make sure you drink extra water throughout the day to ensure your bowel stays hydrated.

Chia Seeds and Ground Flax Seeds

You can also take chia seeds or ground flaxseeds in the same way you would use psyllium.  Simply stir 1 Tbsp of chia seeds or ground flax seeds into a glass of water and drink this once a day.  You can increase the dosage until you notice a difference. Just like with psyllium, it’s important to drink extra water throughout the day since chia and flax also absorb a lot of water.  If you don’t like drinking the seeds in water, you can try out making a chia pudding recipe.

The most important thing to remember is that psyllium, chia and flax are naturally fiber rich foods that you can incorporate into your diet without buying a specific fiber supplement.  By using these foods it’s easy to avoid consuming excess added fillers, artificial sweeteners and colouring.

  • Brown K, DeCoffe D, Molcan E, Gibson DL. Diet-Induced Dysbiosis of the Intestinal Microbiota and the Effects on Immunity and Disease. Nutrients. 2012;4(8):1095-1119. Accessed June 4, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3448089/
  • Gray JR. What is chronic constipation? Definition and diagnosis. Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology. 2011;25(Suppl B):7B-10B. Accessed June 4, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3206562/
  • Higgins, Peter D. R. and John F. Johanson. Epidemiology of constipation in North America: a systematic review. American Journal of Gastroenterology. 2004; April 99 (4): 750–759. Accessed June 4, 2018.   https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15089911
  • Jensen, Bernard. Dr. Jensen’s Guide to Better Bowel Care. New York, NY. Avery; 1999.
  • Nickerson, Kourtney P.  and Christine McDonald. Crohn’s Disease-Associated Adherent-Invasive Escherichia coli Adhesion Is Enhanced by Exposure to the Ubiquitous Dietary Polysaccharide Maltodextrin. PLoS One. 2012; 7(12): e52132. Published online 2012 Dec 12. Accessed June 4, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23251695
  • Potera C. DIET AND NUTRITION: The Artificial Food Dye Blues. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2010;118(10):A428. Accessed June 4, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2957945/
  • Ranson RN, Saffrey MJ. Neurogenic mechanisms in bladder and bowel ageing. Biogerontology. 2015;16(2):265-284. Accessed June 4, 2018.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4361768/
  • Suez, Jotham and Tal Korem, David Zeevi, Gili Zilberman-Schapira, Christoph A. Thaiss, Ori Maza, David Israeli, Niv Zmora, Shlomit Gilad, Adina Weinberger, et al. Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature. 2014 Oct 9; 514(7521): 181–186. Published online 2014 Sep 17. Accessed June 4, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25231862

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Sarah Grossman
Nutritionist
Sarah is a nutritionist and loves empowering others to feel healthier and manage chronic health conditions by eating nutritious food in a sustainable, practical way. She is the co-founder of The Living Kitchen in Toronto, a nutrition and private chef company. Sarah is also a food photographer and author, her cookbook The Living Kitchen (Appetite by Random House) will be available in January 2019.

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