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The History of Constipation

People have been concerned about constipation for ages, at least as long as medical writing goes back, and probably further. The strange thing is that the condition is blamed on “modern living,” meaning diet, activity, and stress that was different from the eras that came before. And they’ve been saying that for thousands of years. Then and now, folks worry about constipation even if they don’t clinically suffer from it, according to medical standards.

That’s because constipation was, itself, a theory of disease. The ideas documented in the Ebers Papyrus, which dates to the 16th century B.C., persisted all the way through the 1930s, in the guise of “autointoxication” — accidental self-poisoning that begins in the bowels. Constipation, then, could literally cause any disease, from cancer to schizophrenia. And this emphasis on constipation as the cause of all disease got stronger in the late 19th century, after scientists began to understand the germ theory of disease, Whorton said. Suddenly, there was a scientific explanation for what everybody already thought to be true. Bacteria lived in your poop. Bacteria caused disease. Clearly, the longer your poop sat in your body, the more at risk you were of getting sick.

We know better now, but that doesn’t mean the worry is gone. Each era of history had its cure-alls and fads, from patent medicine to laxatives to a high-fiber diet to probiotics. Maggie Koerth-Baker traces the history of constipation at FiveThirtyEight. -via Digg

(Image credit: Anna Kovecses)


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