Constipation. There's a word to make you rapidly turn the page - sorry - or read on, hoping no one's looking over your shoulder.

We don't like talking about our bowel habits much. It's not the done thing. Possibly we should be a bit more open about this most basic of functions - if we did it might help turn the tide on our shockingly high rates of colorectal cancer.

Although it's unlikely constipation is a sign of cancer, it could be, which is why any significant change in bowel habit is worth getting checked out.

At the very least it's not comfortable when we can't go and it can cause some unpleasant complications. Studies have shown being constipated can contribute to anxiety and depression and, in older people, lead to social isolation.


Constipation is a contributor to feeling bloated, which is a commonly reported gut symptom. It can also be a symptom of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

So it's a good idea to address the "no go" situation if it happens.

Constipation is considered chronic if you've experienced symptoms - including having fewer than three bowel motions a week; straining to go or feeling like you're not properly empty - for three months or more.

Constipation can often arise if we make a sudden change in our eating, like going on a diet, or cutting out food groups.

The good news is diet can make a big difference in improving the situation.

One of the main things that helps is increasing fibre intake. That means soluble and insoluble fibre from a range of sources: fruit and veges of course, but also include nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. This will make sure you're getting a wide range of different types of fibre, as they're all important.

If you're going to increase fibre, it's really important to keep your fluid intake up. Not having enough fluid is a cause of constipation in itself. When we eat more high-fibre foods we need to stay hydrated to help everything move through easily.

Evidence shows exercise can also be helpful. Just as moving helps the muscles we can see, it also helps boost activity in the muscles of our gut. Being active every day is a good goal.

There's a bit of psychology involved in easing constipation, too. One thing experts advise is allowing for time on the toilet without distractions, and not ignoring the urge to go. Anyone who has had issues when travelling will probably know that changes in routine can often temporarily interfere with our regular patterns, too.

There's some evidence that probiotics - particular types of beneficial bacteria - can improve constipation, although more research is needed. It can't hurt to experiment - but try food first. Some people find fibre supplements helpful. Simple ones like psyllium husk can be added to cereal or baking, but take it easy with these to avoid drastic effects.

Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large of Healthy Food Guide.