Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Let's GO! Natural Ways to Relieve Constipation

Continuing on with issues regarding the GI tract, I would like to address constipation. Overall, we are quite the constipated society. Not only in the literal sense but also figuratively regarding emotions and bodily functions and the shelves at the drug store reflect our inability to let go. There are over 700 different forms of colon cleansers and although commercial laxatives get the job done but they don’t address the underlying issue causing constipation, they only remedy the symptom. Not only can they be habit forming but they can also be very damaging our intestinal flora. Here are some other ways to combat constipation.

What is Constipation and Why is it so Bad?

Constipation is the infrequent passing of stool. Sometimes the stool may be hard and difficult to pass. I feel like there is a misconception about how many bowel movements constitutes “being regular”. If you are going once a day, that’s great (especially for the American standard); however, this is still considered constipated. Technically you should be having a bowel movement after every meal – 3 times a day. When you eat a meal, this stimulates peristalsis in the colon and you should go. When you don’t go, toxins and hormones that are supposed to be excreted in your poop sit in your colon and become reabsorbed into the blood stream. This can cause a whole list of issues including endocrine problems and toxicosis.

It is important to realize that being constipated is a symptom, not an illness. It is the symptom of an improperly functioning digestive system that may be caused by other issues including those of the digestive tract, endocrine system or nervous system. Sometimes the cause is as simple as not enough dietary fiber in your diet or dehydration and other times the cause is more difficult to diagnosis and requires professional assistance in doing so. If you do not address the cause of your constipation and only treat the symptom, you will continue to suffer with chronic constipation. There are many safe ways to enhance your bowel function and herbs to assist; however, if doing all this doesn’t remedy your constipation, it is time to seek outside assistance from your herbalist or MD.

Ways to Get the Bowels Moving

First and foremost, to be regular, it is important to be regular. Eating and sleeping on a regular schedule is necessary to keeping the bowels consistent. Here is a list of other ways to keep the bowels regular:

  • Hydrate yourself: Dehydration can be the cause of constipation or if constipation is already an issue, it can make the problem worse. Be sure you are drinking at least 6-8 cups of water a day. Living in Denver, I find that the dry air and high altitude requires me to drink more than 8 cups a day to stay hydrated and regular.
  • Exercise: I feel like no matter what I am talking about, exercise always makes the list of things that can help and constipation is no different. A stagnant person is bound to have stagnant bowels, so get up and move!
  • Address Emotional Issues: Emotional issues and habits may be contributing to an inability to go potty. Having “no time to go”, being stressed (Natural Ways to Cope with Stress) or being uncomfortable with bodily functions can all be reasons you can’t go and these emotional issues need to be addressed.
  • Lemon Water: Drinking lemon water in the morning helps to stimulate the liver, increase bile production and increases peristalsis. For more information read In Love with Lemon Water.
  • Pass on the Ice: Avoid cold beverages because they constrict blood vessels in the gut.
  • Colonize your Gut with Good Bacteria: Probiotics are necessary for a proper functioning GI tract so be sure to eat plenty of yogurt, kefir, miso soup and unpasteurized sauerkraut.  
  • Avoid Constipating Foods: Things like milk, cheese, ice cream, white flour products, gluten, meat, black berries, processed and refined foods and alcohol can all stop you up and increase incidences of constipation.
  • Whole Foods: Increase your consumption of fruits, veggies and whole grains.
  • Massage your belly: Rubbing your belly in a clockwise direction helps to stimulate movement of food and can help to bring on a bowel movement. Adding chamomile, lavender and rose essential oils all magnify the benefits of abdominal massage.
  • A Stool Can Help Move Stool: Putting a stool under feet and lifting your knees closer to your chest while sitting on the toilet, helps to put you in more of a natural position for pooping. I find that if I am having trouble going, squatting on the floor for a few minutes before heading to the bathroom really helps to get me ready to go.
  • Go When you Gotta Go: When you feel the urge to go coming on, it is important to go. I know that it is more comfortable and often more sanitary to go in the privacy of your own home, but it is very important to relieve yourself when the urge is there.
  • Address Any Possible Food Allergies
Dietary Fiber

The lack of dietary fiber in the modern American diet is one of the main causes of constipation. Dietary fiber, located in different foods, contains constituents that do not break down in the digestive tract. This acts as a laxative by providing bulk that pushes food through the GI tract, binding to water in the colon and softening the poop and supporting the growth of good bacteria in the gut resulting in healthy stool. Foods that are high in fiber include apples, bananas, beets, cabbage, carrots, figs, grapes, parsley, pears, peaches, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, spinach and sweet potatoes.

Herbs to Help you Go

Bulk Laxatives are safe and fiber rich herbs that help to speed the transit time of food through the GI tract. Because they are helping to enhance the digestive system and not compensate for poor functioning, bulk laxatives are safe to take for extended periods of time. Psyllium and flax seeds can be ground up and added to your cereal or salads. One thing I do want to add is that bulk laxatives require water to bulk up so be sure you are drinking plenty of water.

Bitter Herbs are another thing that I feel is helpful for just about everything J They help with constipation by stimulating the liver and increasing bile production. Bile helps to make stool soft and stimulates peristalsis. For more information read Feel Better with Bitters

One recipe that is great for constipation is:
  • 2 parts yellow dock root (Rumex crispus)
  • 2 parts dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale)
  • 1 parts licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra)
  • 1 part anise seed (Pimpinella anisum)
I suggest making this into a decoction and drinking 3 cups daily. It is a great formula for chronic constipation because it doesn’t create dependency. The yellow dock and dandelion help to encourage bowel movements, stimulate the liver and nourish the blood.

Stimulant laxatives work by damaging and irritating the lining of the GI tract causing an excessive laxative effect. Herbs like Senna, Cascara sagrada, rhubarb and aloe all belong in this category. These herbs may be acceptable for a short use but definitely should not be used for long periods of time because they can cause dependency and pain and griping during bowel movements. Stimulant laxatives are compensating for an improperly functioning system and I prefer to avoid them all together if possible.

Kids and Constipation

Constipation can be an issue in children as well as adults and it is important to address the issue quickly rather than letting it develop into a greater problem. Stress, a lack of sleep, environmental changes, travel, illness and an imbalanced diet can all contribute to a child’s regularity or irregularity. All of the “Ways to Get the Bowels Moving” listed above can be applied to children but here is some added tips:

  • Nursing Mothers: If you are breast feeding and your child is constipated, you should avoid the constipating foods that are listed above.
  • Switch to Goat’s Milk: If you are bottle feeding your child with cow’s milk or cow’s milk formula, switch to goats milk.
  • Make Time for the Potty: Setting specific times aside for your child to go to the bathroom is important to keeping your child regular.
  • “More Bulk Please”: Herbs that provide bulk can be powdered and added to other food. Such herbs include carob powder, slippery elm, flax seed, licorice root, Irish moss and psyllium seed can all be used. 1-4 tsp can be used 3 times a day. For children under 10 a smaller dose should be taken.
  • Romm’s Recommendation: Aviva Romm suggests making the following infusion for children when they are constipated
    • 2 tsp slippery elm powder
    • 1 tsp fennel seeds
    • 1 tsp licorice root
    • ¼ tsp powdered ginger root
    • 1 pint of boiling water
    • Combine all herbs in a jar and cover with boiling water. Steep for 20 minutes and then strain the tea. Dosing is as follows:
      • 2 tsp for kids under 2 years old
      • 1-4 tsp for kids 2-7 years old
      • ¼ to ½ cup for kids over 7 years old
      • Repeat dosing 2-4 times until the child has a bowel movement.

I hope this can help you to be more regular, but if you are trying home remedies and your symptoms persist for more than 3 weeks it is time to see the doctor. Also if you have blood in your stool, if your poop is black or if it looks like coffee grounds it is important to seek medical attention immediately. Well it’s time to go…


Gladstar, R. (2001). Rosemary Gladstar's family herbal: a guide to living life with
energy, health, and vitality. North Adams, Mass.: Storey Books.

Hoffmann, D. (2003). Medical herbalism: the science and practice of herbal medicine.
Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press.

Mars, B., & Fiedler, C. (2011). The country almanac of home remedies: time-tested &
almost-forgotten wisdom for treating hundreds of common ailments, aches & pains
quickly and naturally. Beverly, Mass.: Fair Winds Press.

Romm, A. J. (2003). Naturally healthy babies and children: a commonsense guide to herbal remedies, nutrition, and health. Berkeley, Calif.: Celestial Arts.


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