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Managing bowel problems

Managing constipation

Try to drink at least 6-8 glasses of fluid a day and increase your fibre intake from a wide variety of foods. Fibre is classified as either soluble or insoluble. Most plant foods contain a combination of both types of fibre. Insoluble fibre such as wheat bran, wholegrain breads and cereal helps increase the dry weight and ability of bowel motions to hold moisture. Soluble fibre such as in fruits, vegetables and legumes helps to increase the moist volume of a bowel motion. This can help bowel motions to set similar to jelly - this is useful in managing diarrhoea. If you increase the fibre in your diet, be sure to also increase the fluids.

Processed foods such as biscuits, cakes, pastries and fast foods are generally low in fibre and will contribute to constipation. Fruit and vegetable juice contain little fibre and are not a good substitute for whole fruit and vegetables.

Medicines for constipation

It is best to get professional advice on laxatives as there are three types - bulk forming agents, softners and stimulants. The correct choice for your needs is very important and a continence nurse advisor or your doctor can help you select the one that is appropriate for you. Do not try to work out dosages yourself as the problem may get worse. Ask your continence nurse advisor or doctor what to take, how much, how often and for how long.

Sometimes an initial suppository or enema is needed to clear the rectum of constipated stool which is then followed up with a different management plan. Take action if you have been constipated for 2-3 days or more. Always consult your doctor if constipation persists and make sure your doctor prescribes you with a long-term management plan if you get constipated regularly. Also remember that the over-use of stimulant laxatives can cause a 'lazy bowel' resulting in difficulty in long-term bowel management.

Managing diarrhoea

If you experience ongoing diarrhoea it is strongly recommended that you seek professional advice from a doctor. Bowel conditions such as Crohn's disease can cause diarrhoea and require close medical management to keep the condition and your health stable.

Diarrhoea, or loose bowel actions, can be more difficult to control than formed motions. There are foods that trigger diarrhoea and others that help to settle down the bowel so changing your diet may help. For example, some of the coarse insoluble fibre foods such as wholegrain, skins and seeds of certain vegetables can trigger diarrhoea, while soluble fibre foods such as smooth wholemeal breads and cereals can help to form bowel actions. Sometimes a specific type of fibre supplement can help. See your doctor or a dietician for more advice about these. It may be necessary to increase your fluid intake to replace fluids lost in bowel motions.

Your doctor may prescribe medicine to slow down the bowel and for abdominal cramps and nausea.

Managing other bowel problems

Excess wind, faecal urgency and soiling may also be helped by altering your diet. Reducing your intake of insoluble fibre and increasing your intake of soluble fibre may be helpful. Alcohol, caffeine and smoking can all irritate the bowel. For further information visit the Australian Government's Department of Health website

Keeping a bowel diary can be helpful to anticipate problems and to take to your doctor or continence nurse advisor. A bowel diary will give a clearer picture of your pattern of bowel function over the day and night, including any effects of foods that might be causing bowel problems. 

Contact the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66 for further information. 

If you are caring for someone with bladder or bowel problems, practical tips and advice are available to assist you with your care. Read more on caring with someone with incontinence.