When the going gets tough

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.”

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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.

“The post-dinner walk has been shown to help the bowels tremendously and will benefit your overall health,” says Dr. Raymond.

Many medications can cause nausea, constipation, diarrhea, stomach pain and even ulcers, so talk to your doctor if your prescriptions are causing digestive problems. Use caution when taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, because overuse causes stomach pain, bleeding and ulcers.

While constipation is uncomfortable, it will not cause cancer or release toxins into your bloodstream. And, as some advertisements for colon cleansings claim, there is no matter in your intestines that has been there for decades. According to Dr. Raymond, anything in your intestines has only been there for a few days or a week.

The other temporary, common and unpleasant digestive problem is the dreaded diarrhea. This occurs when anything disrupts the natural absorption of liquid during the digestion process.

The most common cause of diarrhea is a viral infection because a virus can damage the lining of the small intestine, preventing the absorption of fluids and nutrients. This usually clears up in one to three days. Other culprits include bacterial infections, parasites, inflammation of the intestines from medication, excessive caffeine or alcohol and intestinal disorders like irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance or celiac disease.

Diarrhea usually clears up without the need of antibiotics or other medications, but while you are recovering you should take steps to care for your body. You must drink plenty of fluids because you are not absorbing enough during digestion. Try water or sports drinks to replace electrolytes. Gradually add solid foods back into your diet, like crackers, cereal, toast, rice and chicken. Avoid foods that may make diarrhea worse, like dairy products, caffeine, alcohol, fatty foods and spicy foods. Do not take anti-acids that contain magnesium because magnesium can cause diarrhea.

Fortunately, most digestive problems only require some changes to your diet and lifestyle. However, you should see a doctor for any sustained change in bowel habits. Other symptoms – weight loss, severe abdominal pain or rectal bleeding – along with digestive distress may be a sign of a more serious condition, like diabetes or a thyroid disorder.

Benefits Beyond the Bathroom
Not only will fiber keep your digestion running smoothly, it can benefit many other areas of your health. Just one of the benefits listed is enough to inspire anyone to get in the FDA’s recommended 25 grams of fiber a day.

  • It reduces your risk of diabetes, heart disease, hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticular disease and colon cancer.
  • It lowers blood cholesterol levels.
  • It slows sugar absorption.
  • It helps with weight control because most high fiber foods are lower in calories and promote a feeling of fullness, so you eat less.

Warning: Increasing the amount of fiber should be done gradually to allow the bacteria in your digestive tract to adjust to its presence. Too much too fast can cause gas, abdominal bloating and cramping.

Sources: MayoClinic.com, Dr. Patricia Raymond

–Christine Green