Keeping our digestion moving is so important. Many people have difficulties in this area. In fact, issues with a sluggish bowel and constipation affect around 2–10 per cent of the overall population and up to 23 per cent in older adults. It is a more common problem in women than men. Not only can not being regular cause abdominal discomfort but it also comes with other significant health issues as mentioned below.
Symptoms of a Sluggish Bowel
Not passing a bowel motion at least every second day (ideally daily)
- Hard stools that are tough to pass
- Stools that are pellet like
- Pain with passing a bowel motion
- Discomfort after passing a bowel motion
- Bright red blood in your stool
- A history of haemorrhoids or anal fissure (tearing)
- Abdominal uneasiness or pains
- Fatigue and generally feeling poorly
Health Issues Long-Term of Having a Sluggish Bowel
The issue with having a sluggish bowel long-term is that it can lead to the following health concerns:
Diverticular disease – is a common condition that results in stretch of the large bowel wall leading to the development of pouches in the wall. These pouches collect faecal matter and can become infested called diverticulitis. Around 5 per cent of 40 year olds have diverticular disease and this number improved to around 30 per cent of 60 year olds.
Faecal incontinence – this is where you lose ability to control bowel movements. This can be an important problem and touches around 1 in 20 people. Constipation can be a significant contributor and/or worsening factor in the development of faecal incontinence.
Pelvic floor weakness – straining to pass a bowel motions can weaken the pelvic floor. This can lead to pelvic discomfort and problems with rectal prolapse.
Haemorrhoids – straining can cause weakening of the rectal veins in the anal region. When this happens small grape-like structures called haemorrhoids form internally and/or externally in the anus/rectum. These can be itchy, aching, and bleed when passing a bowel motion.
Anal tearing (fissure) – straining can cause tearing of the anus. This causes pain and discomfort when passing a bowel motion.
Bowel cancer – there is some evidence to demonstrate that long-term constipation can cause bowel cancer and tumours of the bowel to form.
Bowel obstruction – when the bowel becomes obstructed with hard faecal matter it can become blocked to normal flow. This causes severe pain and in some cases can lead to death from bowel perforation.
What Causes a Sluggish Bowel?
A sluggish bowel causes constipation. Constipation usually happens because the colon (part of the digestive system) engages too much water from your food. If the food moves through the digestive system gradually, too much water may be absorbed. The bowel motions at the end of the digestive process are then too dry and tough. Many things can cause or worsen constipation including:
- The side-effects of some medicines (even some common ones like painkillers or iron tablets)
- Being overweight
- Some nerve diseases
- Some bowel problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Not eating enough fibre
- Not drinking enough water
- Not doing enough exercise
- Anxiety, depression, and/or grief
- Underactive thyroid
- Delaying the need to go to the toilet
- Spending laxatives for more than just a few days at a time
- A slow-transit bowel, which means it takes longer for the faeces to travel all the way to the rectum, so more water is removed over time and constipation is much more likely. This occurs where there is nerve damage such as with stroke, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or trauma.