Women who include a lot of fiber in their diets may have a lower risk for problems with bowel control as they age, a study suggests.
The inability to control bowel movements, or bowel leakage – known as fecal incontinence – affects roughly 1 in 6 noninstitutionalized elderly Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It is quietly debilitating because of the stigma around the condition,” study leader Dr. Kyle Staller of Harvard Medical School in Boston said. “Once affected, patients have few treatment options.” The prevalence of fecal incontinence is expected to increase about 60 percent in older U.S. women by 2050, the researchers said.
The study can’t prove that a specific amount of fiber intake will prevent fecal incontinence. Still, the results are in alignment with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendation of 25 grams of dietary fiber per day.
“Many people do not know how prevalent it is and feel as if they are the only ones with the problem,” said Donna Bliss of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing in Minneapolis, who wasn’t involved with this study.
In an earlier study, Bliss and her colleagues found that a type of fiber called psyllium was more effective than other fiber supplements (such as gum arabic and carboxymethylcellulose) at improving fecal incontinence.
“There is the idea among some people that fecal incontinence is an inevitable consequence of aging,” Bliss added. “These findings suggest a way that people might prevent fecal incontinence and feel more of a sense of control over their health.”
How fiber helps bowel control
Fiber absorbs liquids in the digestive system, thereby bulking up fecal matter. Fiber therapy is simply increasing your fiber intake gradually until you reach the recommended daily intake for your age. It is recommended that women under age 50 consume 25 grams of fiber per day. A woman over 50 years of age should consume 21 grams per day. Men younger 50 are recommended to get 38 grams per day and men over 50 should get 30 grams per day in their diet.
Because fiber has such a great impact on your digestion of food, it is important that you increase your daily fiber gradually. Remember that fiber absorbs liquids in your body, so also increase your water intake as you increase your fiber. Increasing water intake along with fiber also helps to prevent possible side effects of gas and bloating.
How to get more fiber in your diet
- Eat whole grains (look for whole grain pastas, cereals, breads at the store and cut out the “white” pastas, breads and cereals).
- Eat more beans, occasionally substituting them for meat.
- Eat fresh, raw fruits and vegetables.
- Use fiber supplements.
As long as you increase your fiber intake gradually, getting the recommended daily dose usually doesn’t hurt anything (unless you have allergies that make you sensitive to fiber-containing foods), so it’s generally worth trying. Another benefit to adding fiber to your diet is that is associated with lowering certain health risks, such as heart disease.
Adding fiber to your diet can cause bloating, diarrhea and flatulence (gas), especially when increased too quickly in the diet or when you get too much in one day. So go slowly and watch for your body’s ability to handle the added fiber.
While fiber therapy may help to alleviate incontinence, it usually doesn’t cure it completely, so other treatment or management may be necessary under the guidance of your healthcare provider.