What is Constipation?
Constipation is one of the most common digestive complaints in the United States. The normal frequency of bowel movements varies widely from person to person, from once or more a day to three times a week. In general, however, you are likely constipated if you pass a hard, dry stool less than three times a week.
Constipation can also make you feel bloated and uncomfortable and you may find yourself straining during bowel movements.
Although constipation can affect anyone, it’s more common in women and in people over age 65. It also tends to occur during pregnancy, after childbirth or surgery, with certain medications such as opioid pain relievers, and with some conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
Natural Remedies for Constipation
A diet low in fiber may play a role in constipation. Insoluble fiber, which passes through the body almost unchanged, gives stools bulk and a soft texture, making them easier to pass.
Foods that are high in insoluble fiber include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Try wheat bran, brown rice, or whole grain bread.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water and forms a gel-like substance in the intestines. Prunes and figs can be added to breakfast or eaten as a snack.
Another option is to sprinkle one teaspoon of ground flaxseeds over any meal. They can be found in packages at the health food store or some grocery stores. They have a mild, nutty taste.
Fiber supplements are also available, the most popular being psyllium husk supplements such as Metamucil.
Add fiber to your diet gradually to avoid bloating and gas. Also, be sure to drink enough water otherwise fiber can have the opposite effect and be constipating.
Making sure you drink enough fluids such as water may help some people with constipation. Fluids make bowel movements softer and easier to pass.
Watch your consumption of alcoholic beverages and caffeinated beverages such as coffee and cola drinks, which can be dehydrating.
3) Stimulant Laxatives
Many herbal laxatives and “dieter’s teas” are called stimulant laxatives, or anthranoid laxatives. They include herbs such as:
- Cascara sagrada
Some of these herbs, such as senna, are approved as over-the-counter treatments for constipation. Although they are meant to be short-term treatments, in reality, people can become dependent on them and use them for weeks, months, or even years at a time in order to have a daily bowel movement.
They should not be used for longer than a week unless under medical supervision. Prolonged use may cause the bowels to lose the ability to move on their own, and has been linked to chronic diarrhea, potassium depletion leading to muscle weakness and potentially dangerous irregular heart rhythms, and kidney or liver impairment.
Probiotics, such as lactobacillus acidophilus, are live microbial organisms that are naturally present in the digestive tract. Some of the ways they are thought to promote health include suppressing the growth of potentially harmful bacteria, improving immune function, enhancing the protective barrier of the digestive tract, and helping to produce vitamin K.
There is some preliminary evidence that probiotic supplements may improve constipation. For example, one study looked at the effect of a probiotic beverage containing a strain of beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus casei Shirota (65 milliliters a day) or a placebo in people with chronic constipation. The probiotic drink resulted in significant improvement in severity of constipation and stool consistency.
Another study examined the effectiveness of another strain of probiotics on constipation in children and found no effect. Eighty four children between two and 16 years of age with constipation took lactulose (a laxative) plus a probiotic supplement containing lactobacillus GG or lactulose alone. After 12 and 24 weeks, lactobacillus was not more effective than lactulose alone at treating constipation.
Acupressure is a traditional healing practice that involves the application of finger pressure to specific acupuncture points on the body.
A point that is often recommended by acupuncturists for constipation is Large Intestine 4. Although it hasn’t been studied for constipation, it is a simple home remedy that may work for some people. The point is at the highest spot of the muscle between the thumb and index finger when they are brought close together. Caution: do not use this point if you are pregnant.
With your thumb or middle finger at a 90 degree angle to the skin, apply gradually increasing pressure. Hold for three minutes. The pressure should not be painful or uncomfortable.
A deficiency of the mineral magnesium may contribute to constipation. Magnesium is found naturally in foods such as green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains and in supplements.
Magnesium is needed for normal muscle function, including intestinal muscles. One recent study examined the intake of magnesium with constipation in 3835 women. Low magnesium intake was associated with constipation.
- Engage in regular physical activity. Not getting enough physical activity can lead to constipation.
- Don’t put off the urge. The longer you delay when the urge to have a bowel movement strikes, the more water gets absorbed from stool and the harder it becomes to have a bowel movement.
Akilah M. El, N.D. is a Naturopathic Doctor and board-certified Master Herbalist with a private practice in Atlanta Georgia and Berlin Germany. Join Dr Akilah El on Facebook and Twitter