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Firsthand Accounts of Living With Chronic Diarrhea or Constipation

10 September 2020

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It’s an uncomfortable situation, there’s no doubt. It’s awful to find yourself frantically searching for a restroom while you’re bargain shopping. It’s worse when you’re visiting a friend’s home and you’re locked in their guest bathroom longer than politeness allows. Sadly, for many people suffering with chronic constipation or diarrhea, these situations are inescapable.

We asked two Oklahomans, Michelle and Kristen, to share their stories of suffering with gastrointestinal problems. To help shed light on what they experienced, Arun Sachdev M.D., who specializes in Gastroenterology at INTEGRIS Health, shared facts about chronic constipation and diarrhea and advice for when to seek help.

Michelle and her battle with chronic diarrhea

Acute diarrhea, or diarrhea that last for hours or days at time, is so common it is diagnosed 179 million times in the United States each year. Chronic diarrhea lasts much longer – for weeks at a time – and can be symptomatic of much more serious issues.

For Michelle, her issues with chronic diarrhea began during college. She noticed them most during times of high stress, such as important exams and large-scale projects. During this time, she had issues with a spastic colon and was even diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome or IBS.

“Common causes of chronic diarrhea include irritable bowel syndrome, hyperthyroidism, prescription medications, inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, infections such as parasites, pancreatic insufficiency, celiac disease, and lactose intolerance,” says Dr. Sachdev. “There are many other possibilities, too. You should see a physician if diarrhea persists for more than two weeks, there is blood in the stool, your experience weight loss or abdominal pain, or if your family has a history of Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.”

Because of her ongoing issues, including bouts with a spastic colon and IBS, Michelle uses probiotics and tries to regulate her diet carefully. Some of the foods that help her stay healthy include the following.

  • Dark greens
  • Nuts
  • Berries
  • Eggs
  • Avocado
  • Beans
  • Fermented foods – kimchi, yogurt and kombucha
  • Oats
  • Apples
  • Bright colored veggies 
  • Green tea

“Most of these foods are part of the anti-inflammatory diet,” Michelle says. “It helps me to keep my stomach on the right track by not eating foods that inflame my GI tract. When I practice other things, like doing yoga and sitting in a sauna, my whole-body wellness is on track and I feel at my best. I also try to make sure I get five to seven glasses of water each day, plus a cup of green tea.”

When these practices don’t help ease her symptoms, Michelle says she first turns to over-the-counter medicines to make her feel better. However, she worries that this may be masking the symptoms of a bigger problem.

“Associated serious health conditions of chronic diarrhea include malnutrition due to lack of absorption of vital nutrients, dehydration which can lead to low blood pressure and subsequent falls, and injury to the kidneys,” Dr. Sachdev says.

After a lifetime of battling chronic diarrhea, it was hard for Michelle to know when she was seriously sick. Starting in August 2018, she started having diarrhea each time she ate.

“I didn’t feel sick at the time, it was just the diarrhea,” Michelle says. “So, I went to my family doctor and did a stool sample that came back negative. Eight weeks later, I went to a gastroenterology specialist because I was still dealing with diarrhea. I came to find out I had e. coli.”

If Michelle has learned anything from her battle with chronic diarrhea, she says it’s “when something is happening, don’t wait too long. Go to the doctor and keep seeking help if your symptoms don’t subside.”

Kristen suffers with chronic constipation

You’ll most likely experience constipation at least once in your life. However, for Kristen, it was chronic – one bowel movement per day was the maximum and two or three for the entire week was much more common. Her condition fit the definition of chronic constipation perfectly.

“Chronic constipation means a person generally has less than three stools per week lasting for several months,” Dr. Sachdev says. “This condition affects 15 to 20 percent of the population. Common causes of chronic constipation include hypothyroidism and prescribed medications including pain medications and certain blood pressure medications. Irritable bowel syndrome with constipation is a common problem, too. Blockages in the colon due to colon cancer or another benign condition can also cause decreased stool frequency.”

As Kristin’s gotten older, her constipation has gotten worse. She often feels bloated and has stomach aches. She constantly deals with low-grade abdominal pain and is uncomfortable and lethargic because of it. Sometimes, she even finds blood in her stool.

“I don’t know if it’s because my colon has slowed down as I’ve aged, or if it’s related to perimenopause,” Kristen says. “I’ve been wondering if now that I’m in my 40s it’s a pelvic floor disorder that’s causing my constipation.

When Kristen talks to her doctor, she always hears that she needs to add more fiber to her diet. However, Kristen already eats several servings of fruits and vegetables each day and drinks about 80 ounces of water. Unless she goes to extremes, like eating an entire bag full of vegetables, adding fiber to her diet doesn’t seem to be enough.

“Over-the-counter medications for constipation include fiber supplements, stool softeners and laxatives such as Miralax,” Dr. Sachdev says. “The dangers of these medications include diarrhea and the medications may mask a more serious underlying problem. You should see physician if there is blood in the stool, severe associated abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss or you have a family history of colon cancer.”

When it comes to the home remedies, Kristen says she’s tried everything.

“I take a probiotic with live cultures,” Kristen says. “I also do a fiber supplement. I can’t handle the kind made from psyllium husks, but I’ve used the ones made from wheat dextrin. It never really seemed to help much. I’ve used glycerin suppositories. I often use stool softeners. I won’t use stimulating laxatives because I don’t want my body to become dependent and because of the associated cramps and discomfort.”

For Kristen, it doesn’t end there. She had a colonoscopy and had a benign polyp removed, but the benefits didn’t last long.

“So, in the last year, I’ve developed hemorrhoids,” Kristen says. “With this development, I’ve learned a whole new level of discomfort. There is so much more to dealing with hemorrhoids and it’s all a result of the constipation. I’ve added flax and triphala to my diet, and I’ve even tried colonics.”

However, according to Dr. Sachdev, colonics can be dangerous.

“Colonics are not a recommended procedure from our clinic,” he says. “The known risks include infection, perforation, dehydration, bleeding and electrolyte imbalances.”

Kristen hasn’t found a solution to end her chronic constipation yet, but she is still searching. She talks with her doctor regularly and they continue to work together to find a comfortable solution. If you suffer with symptoms like Kristen’s, don’t hesitate to begin the conversation with your doctor immediately. Solutions can take time to find and your symptoms could indicate a more serious health problem.

Don’t suffer unnecessarily

The most important thing you can do for your health is to listen when your body tells you there’s a problem. Don’t put off scheduling a visit to the doctor.

“Any significant change in bowel habits may require further investigation,” Dr. Sachdev says. “Investigation could include stool studies, blood work or a simple 30-minute colonoscopy.”

If you need help finding a doctor, let INTEGRIS Health help. Simply visit their website to search for doctors with specialties in all sorts of medical fields.