Regular bowel motions are an essential part of good health, and ideally, you should be able to go to the toilet once or twice a day without needing to strain or experiencing any pain.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
Under normal circumstances, healthy people pass bowel movements regularly, and without experiencing any discomfort. Constipation is the term used to describe difficulty defecating, and refers to bowel movements that are infrequent and/or painful or difficult to pass. The associated faeces are often hard or dry in texture when they are finally excreted. Accompanying gastrointestinal symptoms may include flatulence, bloating, abdominal or intestinal discomfort, and feeling that you haven’t completely emptied your bowels after you’ve been to the toilet. Many people who experience chronic constipation develop haemorrhoids, symptoms of which may include pain, swelling and itching around the anus and the appearance of blood in the stool or on the toilet paper.
What causes constipation?
Being constipated is usually an indication that you’re not eating enough fibre and/or drinking enough water. In some people, stress, anxiety, premenstrual syndrome, underlying health problems (such as irritable bowel syndrome or thyroid disease) or the use of certain medicines may contribute to the issue by impeding peristalsis (the wavelike contractions that propel the faecal matter through the intestines). In other cases, bowel movements become difficult to pass because of pressure or obstruction (as may occur during pregnancy or when a stool has become impacted), lack of tone or strength in the abdominal muscles, or due to habitually delaying going to the bathroom. From a naturopathic perspective, constipation may also be caused by disruption of the intestinal bacteria, poor digestive function or sluggish liver function. In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), constipation is commonly viewed as being caused by an excess of Heat in the body, which can dry out the body fluids, harden the stool, impede peristalsis and make it difficult to move the bowels. Factors that impede the functioning of the Stomach and Spleen organ-meridian systems may also be involved, interfering with their ability to digest food and transport the waste materials downwards for excretion.
Natural therapies for constipation
Chinese herbs for constipation
In TCM, a wide variety of herbs are used to relieve constipation, depending on the symptoms that are present. When constipation is accompanied by symptoms of excess Heat (such as a bloated abdomen, bad breath or a reddish complexion), Rhubarb is indicated to drain the heat and promote the expulsion of faecal waste. When the stool is dry or crumbly and other signs and symptoms of excess Dryness are also present (e.g. dryness of the lips, skin or eyes), herbs such as Tricosanthes and Rehmannia are used because they are traditionally viewed as have moistening effects on the intestines and an ability to lubricate the stool and encourage the bowels to open. Chinese Licorice may also be used to enhance the functioning of the Spleen and Stomach organ-meridians.
Probiotics support healthy bowel movements
Taking a probiotic supplement may support regular, healthy bowel motions, enhance the speed at which bowel movements travel through the intestinal tract and improve the consistency of the faeces. For children with constipation or irregular bowel habits, choose a specially formulated kids’ probiotic supplement that contains bacterial strains naturally present in the intestinal tracts of infants and children, such as Bifidobacterium breve, B. infantis and B. longum.
Diet and lifestyle recommendations for constipation
- A healthy, fibre-rich diet forms the foundation of healthy bowel habits, so make sure to include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet, and to also eat regular servings of wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds
- Your fluid intake is important too – aim to drink around two litres of water every day
- In TCM, foods that are glossy or slippery in texture are traditionally regarded as having lubricating effects on the intestines and helping to relieve constipation, so spinach, honey and bananas are good foods to include in your diet. (Try drinking warm water with a spoonful of honey in it before going to bed)
- Other foods Chinese herbalists recommend when you’re constipated include naturally sweet and moisturising fruits such as peaches, apricots, pears and figs, and nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios and black sesame seeds
- On the other hand, sour and astringent foods such as lemons, limes, pickles and vinegar are traditionally best avoided when you’re constipated
- Always go to the toilet as soon as you can after experiencing the urge to encourage your body to get out of the habit of ‘holding on’
- Strengthen and tone your abdominal muscles by staying active and exercising regularly
- Avoid the long-term use of laxatives as the bowel may become dependent on them, ultimately exacerbating constipation issues
When should you see your doctor or other health professional about constipation?
- Seek urgent medical advice if you experience alternating episodes of constipation and diarrhoea, if blood or mucus are visible in your faeces, or if your faeces are black, red or have the appearance of coffee grounds
- You should also speak to your healthcare professional if you are experiencing regular episodes of constipation or if you are unable to go to the toilet for more than a week
- Some prescribed medicines interfere with bowel regularity; talk to your healthcare professional if you’re concerned you may be affected