At the very least, constipation is uncomfortable, and sometimes it can be downright painful. Plenty of fibre, fluids and exercise can help keep bowel movements regular. And for those times when you need some gentle assistance, natural supplements might be the answer.
What is it?
Bowel habits can vary widely from person to person, but most doctors would agree that anyone who passes hard stools more than three times a week is constipated. In addition, if you frequently have to strain to defecate, you also many benefit from therapies aimed at relieving constipation.
What causes it?
In the majority of cases, constipation occurs because of a lack of fibre and fluids in the diet. Other contributing factors include insufficient exercise or prolonged inactivity; severe depression; and medical disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, high blood calcium levels, a sluggish thyroid or colon cancer. Overuse of laxatives or some antacids can impair bowel activity, and certain medications (including drugs for high blood pressure, antidepressants and narcotic pain relievers) can also cause constipation.
What are the symptoms?
- Infrequent bowel movements.
- Hard, dry stools.
- Difficulty or pain when passing stools.
- Swelling of the abdomen.
Are there any natural therapies?
Any abrupt change in your usual frequency of bowel movements may be a sign of a more serious underlying disorder, such as cancer or a bowel obstruction, and requires medical evaluation. However, for occasional irregularity, various natural supplements may help. Benefit should be felt in a day or two. If needed, most of these supplements can be taken long term.
Vitamin C can be useful for the treatment of constipation. Besides its role as an immune stimulant and antioxidant, this vitamin is a gentle laxative as well. A 3000 mg daily dose loosens the stools in most people. If this amount doesn’t work, fradually increase the dose, or, alternatively, keep the daily dose at 3000 mg and add the mineral magnesium, which, along with its many other properties, has gentle laxative effects.
In addition to these nutrients, psyllium, ground flaxseed or ground fenugreek seeds provide fibre and make the stools larger, softer, and easier to pass; they can be used daily. Be sure to have them with plenty of water to facilitate the passage of extra bulk through the digestive tract. You can also try prune juice or dried prunes for their laxative effects; they’re gentle enough to use with other supplements. Or drink dandelion root tea, which has mild laxative properties.
If this combination of remedies does not provide relief within a day or two, consider the herb cascara sagrada as a last resort. Because this herb is a powerful laxative that stimulates the bowel muscles to contract, it should be used for no longer than one to two weeks at a time. Avoid it if you’re pregnant or breast feeding.
What else can I do?
- Eat foods high in fibre, including raw fruits and vegetables, whole grains, bran and dried beans.
- Drink at least eight 250 ml glasses of water or juice a day.
- Exercise regularly, and whenever possible go to the bathroom as soon as the urge strikes.
Did you know?
If you’re constipated, it’s very important to drink plenty of fluids – but not all drinks are created equal. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages actually cause fluid loss, making constipation worse. On the other hand, water, vegetable and fruit juices and clear soups are excellent fluid replenishers. A hot liquid in the morning may help to trigger the relex that gets the bowel moving.