When the going gets tough

| November 03, 2005

A proper diet can prevent constipation and diarrhea from becoming a problem on the road.

I know what you’re thinking – don’t go there! Even though we don’t like talking about our internal plumbing, digestive health is too important to ignore.

Improper digestive health, specifically improper waste elimination, brings discomfort to millions of Americans’ lives every year. While anyone is at risk for digestive problems, this is an important topic for drivers because of the inconvenience and annoyance of driving a truck while battling irregular bowl movements.

The great news is that the most common digestive issues – constipation and diarrhea – are preventable by knowing more about what happens during digestion. So even if you don’t like talking about it, read on and learn how you can take better care of your tummy and avoid unnecessary stops and discomfort on the job.

Of all of the possible digestive nuisances, constipation is the most common. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, there are at least 2.5 million doctor visits for constipation in the United States each year, and hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on laxatives yearly. Constipation is the repeated painful or difficult passage of hard stool or having a bowel movement only once every week or two. Your colon absorbs water from food residue as it absorbs nutrients to form semi-solid stools. The food waste progressively loses water content. Eventually, the waste becomes dry and difficult to pass.

Recognizing constipation can be difficult because everyone has different waste elimination schedules. A common misconception is that you should have a bowel movement every day, but normal movement varies from three times a day to three times a week. The best way to identify constipation is by knowing what is regular for your own body.

“Constipation is really in the eye of the beholder,” says Dr. Patricia Raymond, a gastroenterologist in Chesapeake, Va. “With diarrhea there are ways to quantify the amount of stool to classify it as diarrhea, but with constipation, it is really just what is comfortable for you.”

The causes of constipation can vary, but the lack of fiber in a trucker’s diet is usually the culprit. Many truckers frequently eat fast food, which is often stripped of its fiber, high in fat and low in nutrients – a combination that can be grueling for the digestive system. Other causes are dehydration, old age, sedentary lifestyle, frequent use of laxatives, stress and ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement. Constipation can be a side effect of medications for certain drugs.

Fortunately, you can keep things moving by making moderate changes to your diet, eating schedule and lifestyle. Of all the changes you can make in your diet, the most important is to take in more fiber. The Food and Drug Administration’s food guide pyramid recommends 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories, which is at least 25 grams of fiber a day for the average recommended calorie intake level. Fiber gives stool bulk and also softens it, which helps prevent constipation, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome. Foods that contain fiber, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains, pass more easily and quickly through your digestive tract. (See sidebar for benefits of fiber foods.)

“The proper way to treat it is to pull into places where you can get to a salad bar or buy carrots and celery and eat those for snacks,” says Dr. Raymond.

You should drink plenty of fluids to soften stool and dissolve nutrients, and reduce fat and oil intake, as they slow digestion. Avoid alcohol because it can wreak havoc on digestion by inflaming your stomach lining, causing heartburn or bleeding and leading to digestive disorders.

Another important change you can make is how and when you eat. You should try to eat moderate portions because they are digested more comfortably. Large portions add stress to digestion and hinder proper digestion. You should eat at regular times, too. Following a regular schedule of breakfast, lunch and dinner will help you to avoid overeating and give your digestive organs time to rest between meals. Scheduled eating will also decrease stress. Relaxing while you eat is important because you tend to chew your food more, your gastric and intestinal juices flow more freely, and digestive muscles contract and relax.

In addition to diet and good eating habits, your day-to-day activities have a significant impact on digestive health. Maintain a healthy weight to decrease pressure within your abdomen and stomach. Try to get regular exercise, even if it is only a 30-minute walk before you hit the road. This will increase circulation, stimulating the activity of your intestinal walls. Try walking after dinner, too.

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