Constipation Myths and Facts

Vintage Cathartic AdWhen it comes to health issues, bowels are big business. Bowel movements are part of everyday life, and we notice immediately when our routine changes. Constipation, from the Latin word constipare (“to crowd together”) is something almost everyone has some experience with. In most cases, it’s an occasional annoyance that resolves quickly. For others, particularly the elderly, constipation can be a chronic condition, significantly affecting quality of life. Depending on the question and the sample surveyed, prevalence seems to vary widely. It’s estimate that there are 2.5 million physician visits per year in the USA, and the costs of management are estimated at about $7.5 billion annually. It’s not a trivial issue.

One of the biggest challenges in interpreting both individual patient situations, as well as the literature overall, is understanding what’s defined as “constipation”. One person’s regular routine may be another person’s constipation. From my dialogue with patients, personal definitions seem to vary. Some panic after a single missed bowel movement, while others may be unconcerned with daily (or even less frequent) movements. What’s the optimal frequency? It depends. Infants may be 3x/day. Older children may be once daily. Adults may be daily or less frequently. The literature generally, though not consistently, defines constipation as a delay or difficulty in bowel movements ( usually less than 3 per week) lasting two weeks. Symptoms can include infrequent, painful bowel movements, straining, and lumpy or hard stools. When these problems last for more than three months, it’s termed chronic constipation. When constipation is accompanied by other symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, it may be termed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

There are multiple causes of constipation. It may be a consequence of other illnesses (e.g., high/low thyroid, diabetes, cancer, and neurological diseases like multiple sclerosis). Drugs, both prescription and over-they-counter, can also cause constipation. Primary or idiopathic constipation is a diagnosis of exclusion, after other causes have been ruled out. If there are no signs of a more serious underlying condition, treatments can be considered.

Many have firmly-held opinions about their colon and their bowel movements: what’s normal, and what’s not. And there are equally strong opinions about the causes of, and solutions to, constipation. But despite the ubiquity of constipation and the firmly-held opinions on treatments, there’s a sizable chasm between practice and evidence. This is an area with crappy (sorry) data, and it’s hard to sort out what are true treatment effects. But an absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, so we’re challenged to make the best decisions possible, despite a disappointing evidence base. Here are some common statements I’ve encountered, and an evidence check on their veracity. Continue reading

What’s all that other stuff in my medicine?

Fillers, binders, and excipients galore!

If you read enough supplement advertisements, like I do, you’ll often see the purity of a product is cited as one of its merits. It’s usually some phrase like:

Contains no binders! No fillers! No colours! No excipients! No starch! No gluten! No coatings! No flow agents!

It’s a point of pride for supplement manufacturers to advertise that their product contains nothing but the labelled ingredient. And that’s also seen as an important benefit to many that purchase supplements. The perception from many consumers (based on my personal experience) seems to be that products are inferior if they contain non-drug ingredients. By this measure, drug products are problematic. Pharmaceuticals all contain an array of binders, coatings, supplements and fillers. Even (gasp) artificial ingredients and sweeteners! And they’re often, though not always, disclosed on the package label.

But rather than being a negative feature, these supplementary, non-medicinal ingredients play a critical role in ensuring that drug products are of consistent and reproducible quality. Without them, we’d have products that are potentially unstable, we’d be unclear if they were actually being absorbed, and we wouldn’t know if they actually delivered any active ingredients into the body. In short, we’d be in the same situation we’re currently in with many herbal remedies and other types of supplements.

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Would you like a Coke and fries with your prescription?

Is pharmacy a business or a profession? It’s a question that comes up when when pharmacists put financial interests ahead of patient interests. And that’s the question that’s being asked of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, the national advocacy organization for Australian retail pharmacies. The Guild recently announced a partnership with Blackmores, a large Australian supplement manufacturer. The partnership means that the Guild’s pharmacy computer system will prompt pharmacists to recommend Blackmores-branded supplements alongside specific prescription drugs. The announcement has exploded in the Guilds’ face (see the advertisement above, for example), and brought widespread criticism to pharmacists, and pharmacy practice. Is this co-marketing science-based or profit-based? And is it ethical? Let’s look at the details. Continue reading