Constipation is a condition in which a person’s bowel movements are small, hard, and dry. If a person has fewer than three bowel movements per week, they are generally considered to be constipated.
Causes of Constipation
Constipation may be caused by medications or by lifestyle choices. Often, when a person does not have enough water or fiber in their diet, they will become constipated. In fact, many persons just do not eat enough fiber in their diet to avoid at least occasional constipation. Other lifestyles choices that can cause constipation include lack of exercise, travel, and a suppression of the urge to move the bowels. Constipation can also be caused by aging, overuse of laxatives, stroke, and irritable bowel syndrome. Finally, the following medications may cause constipation: pain relievers, antacids, iron supplements, blood pressure medication, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, antispasmodics, and medication used to treat Parkinson’s disease.
Prevention of Constipation
Constipation is often easy to prevent, usually by drinking eight glasses of fluid everyday (water is recommended), eating a diet that is high in fiber, and getting regular exercise. High fiber diets keep things moving within a person’s intestines. Additionally, individuals should not resist the urge to move their bowels. While laxatives and enemas may be helpful at times, overuse can be habit-forming and damage the colon.
Symptoms of Constipation
When constipated, a person’s bowel movements may cause pain, and individuals may experience sluggishness and bloating.
How Constipation is Diagnosed
When constipation is prolonged and/or chronic, doctors will often perform blood tests or what is called a colorectal transit study, which uses X-rays to follow a special capsule that moves through the colon. Other times, doctors will use a flexible, lighted tube to view the rectum and lower colon (sigmoidoscopy), or the entire colon (colonoscopy).
Constipation Possible Treatments
First and foremost, constipation is often cured by eating a healthy diet, high in fibrous fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A good goal for fiber consumption is 20-35 grams per day, or eating five servings of fruit and five servings of vegetables each day. Foods with low fiber such as ice cream, cheese, and meat should be avoided if possible. Good foods for promoting healthy bowels include almonds, apples, avocados, chicory, dandelion, dates, endive, figs, flaxseed, grapes, mangos, papayas, parsley, persimmons, pineapple, prunes, rhubarb, soy beans, swede, turnips, walnuts, and watercress (soups are easily made from a number of these ingredients).
Studies by Dr. Denis Burkitt have found that eating a high fiber diet is a very effective way of preventing constipation. He found that in African societies, where a high fiber diet was the norm, very few persons ever suffered from constipation. In fact, the only people who exhibited constipation when he was in Africa were ones who ate a diet low in fiber, similar to that of Western countries.
Regular exercise and staying hydrated (especially with water and fruit or vegetable juices) will also help to promote healthy bowel movement. Drinking prune juice is generally considered to be one of the cheapest, most safe, effective, and pleasant laxative treatments (though the Federal Food and Drug Administration does not allow it to be marketed as such). Other juices which are often used to help with constipation include apple-pear juice, asparagus juice, jicama juice, and potato juice (these should not be created using a juice machine which extracts fiber, the fiber is what an individual needs from the juice). While herbal teas have a number of health benefits, they are also rich in tannins, which help to bind stools and help hold back bowel movements (tea is often used to treat diarrhea). Laxatives may be taken to promote bowel movement, but prolonged usage may end up making constipation worse.
Natural solutions include taking psyllium seeds or ground flaxseed with a juice or protein drink. Cascara sagrada, a herbal remedy, is often very effective at treating constipation. Cascara is usually mixed with barberry, turkey rhubarb, red raspberry, and cayenne. These natural solutions are often fairly expensive.
Flax, or linseed, is a possible herbal treatment for constipation. Germany’s equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration, Commission E, has endorsed flaxseed as an herbal treatment for constipation. The Commission recommends that individuals take one to three tablespoons of whole or crushed flaxseed two to three times per day to relieve constipation. For the remedy to work most effectively, individuals should also consume at least eight glasses of water per day.
Psyllium (Plantago ovada) seeds are another herbal remedy for constipation. These seeds contain mucilage, a tiny fiber which can absorb a lot of liquid in someone’s digestive system. Once the mucilage absorbs liquid, it swells, making the stool larger, pressing on the wall of the colon, and triggering muscle contractions which alert an individual that they need to perform a bowel movement. Germany’s Commission E has endorsed psyllium as a herbal remedy for constipation and recommends taking three to ten tablespoons per day, along with a healthy dose of water (the digestive tract may become obstructed if the individual does not drink water along with the psyllium seeds). Finally, persons with asthma should avoid using psyllium seeds, as some asthmatics have reported allergic reactions to psyllium and others have had asthma attacks triggered by psyllium seed dust. Persons with serious allergy problems should also take precautions when taking psyllium, and carefully monitor any reactions. A similar seed called Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) may also be taken.
Other herbal remedies include aloe, buckthorn (Rhamnus catharticus), frangula (Frangula alnus), and senna (Cassia senna). All of these remedies contain powerful laxative chemicals called anthraquinones. However, anthraquinones are very powerful laxatives, and can be harsh on a person’s digestive system (some have reported having blood in their stool or nausea after ingestion). While Commission E endorses anthraquinones, many will only use these as a last resort if other remedies have not worked. Persons may become dependent on these remedies if taken for long periods of time.
In traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture was used to help relieve constipation. In Tibetan medicine, padma lax, an herbal formula, is used to relieve constipation. Abdominal massage may also relieve symptoms of constipation.
- Bratman, S. The Alternative Medicine Ratings Guide: an expert panel rates the best treatments for over 80 conditions, Prima Health A Division of Prima Publishing (1998)
- Brown, L. Alternative Medicine, NTC/Contemporary Publishing (1999)
- Deepak Chopra, M.D. Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Celestial Arts (2002)
- Duke, J. The Green Pharmacy: Herbal remedies for common diseases and conditions from the world's foremost authority on healing herbs,Rodale Limited (2003)
- Nancy Allison. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Body-Mind Disciplines, The Rosen Publishing Group (1999)
- Servan-Schreiber, D. The Encyclopedia of New Medicine: Conventional & Alternative Medicine For All Ages, Rodale International Limited (2006)
Posted in ConstipationAsk a Question Or Join a Discussion