Constipation is the most common digestive complaint in the US. Since most people don’t discuss this issue with their doctor, it’s hard to get accurate figures, but estimates are that between 9 and 20 percent of adults in this country are affected.
I suspect that even the higher end of this estimate is too low. US laxative sales in 2020 were $6.73 billion and are expected to reach $10.81 billion by 2027.
Almost all laxatives work through irritation of the colon. They trigger contractions as the colon is trying to rid itself of the irritant. Over time, the colon becomes less sensitive, which often requires increased doses or a different product.
Determine the Root Causes of Constipation
Rather than taking laxatives to help relieve constipation, you should first determine the root cause. Constipation often stems from not going to the bathroom right away when “nature calls” and a lack of fermented foods and/or probiotics in the diet. If you don't already, be sure to take a probiotic supplement every day and add more homemade fermented foods into your diet.
Lack of fiber and water are also a major cause of constipation.
We need a minimum of 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily to stave off constipation. Unfortunately, modern food processing techniques often remove the fiber from food. As a result, many of us get less than 20 grams a day.
Eating oats is one of the best ways to add fiber and relieve constipation. Oats contain both soluble and insoluble fiber—8 grams in one cup of uncooked oatmeal. In addition to containing the most soluble fiber of any food (55 percent), oats contain 45 percent insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber is the portion of the plant that can't be broken down by your digestive system. Insoluble fiber helps constipation because it absorbs water and swells, making the stool bulky, soft, and easy to pass.
Be aware, instant oatmeal is partially cooked and often contains sugar, salt, and other ingredients. Old-fashioned oats take a little longer to cook, but the 15 minutes are worth the wait.
Flaxseed is another great option for fiber. Whole flaxseeds contain anywhere from 6 to 12 percent mucilage, a slimy, gum-like compound that provides a temporarily soothing and protective coating along the entire digestive tract. It provides both bulk and softness to stool.
Keep in mind that if the flaxseeds aren't crushed, ground, or broken, they will pass through your system intact whole and you'll lose the benefits. Be sure to grind the seeds in either a small coffee grinder or a blender. (If you intend to use a blender, adding a bit of water or liquid to the seeds will make the blending process much easier.) Grind the seeds just prior to using them. If you don't consume the ground powder rather quickly after grinding, you risk the chance of the precious oils oxidizing and going rancid.
Finally, it's important to make sure you are drinking plenty of water, especially when you increase your fiber intake. Fiber soaks up water like a sponge. While this action is great for promoting soft stools and relieving constipation, it could actually cause constipation if you're not drinking enough water.
Here are a few other things you can try for constipation relief.
Open Your Ileocecal Valve
The ileocecal valve is located between the small and large intestine. Basically, it's in the same area as the appendix and many times what is thought to be an appendix problem is, instead, a problem with this valve.
This little valve has two very important jobs to do. First, it serves as a block that prevents the toxic contents of the large intestine from backing up into the small intestine. Second, it keeps the food products in the small intestine from passing into the large intestine before the digestive processes have been completed. This valve can at times become either "stuck shut" or "stuck open." When this valve sticks shut, feces stays in the small intestine, unable to move any further. This back-up causes constipation.
There are a few common reasons why the ileocecal valve doesn't always work right. Sometimes spicy or roughage-type foods will irritate the valve and cause it to get stuck. Stress and emotional trauma can also cause the valve to malfunction. And I've personally found that those who have had their appendix removed seem to have more problems with the valve than others. Luckily, there are a couple of simple things you can do to open up an ileocecal valve that is stuck closed.
- Massage your ileocecal reflex points. Manipulating specific acupressure points and reflex areas will often provide almost immediate relief from symptoms of constipation, and help the valve function normally again. Oftentimes you’ll actually hear a “gurgling” sound in the area of the valve after manipulating these points. And it’s not unusual to see a noticeable improvement within half an hour or so. The areas illustrated below should be massaged with firm pressure for about 10 to 20 seconds each. (It is not beneficial to rub the points any longer than that. In fact, it may negate the effect.)
- Remove the toxic food products that are backing up in the intestines. The best method to do this is to use chlorophyll, which is easy to obtain at any health food store. Initially, either two capsules or tablets or a ½ teaspoon of chlorophyll liquid should be taken every two hours for about six to eight hours, and the same amount with each meal for the next three or four days.
- Modify your diet. Eliminate spicy foods, alcohol, cocoa, chocolate, and caffeinated products for a week or so. Also, take additional calcium and vitamin D.
Colon massage is an at-home procedure that can help return bowel habits to normal. Keep in mind that it works best if underlying causes (like those listed above) are addressed.
Colon massages have been utilized by alternative health practitioners for centuries. But, like many other natural techniques, they have fallen out of favor and been replaced by pharmaceutical products.
There are several approaches to colon massage and each might have slight differences. But they all involve moderate pressure massage at the start of the large intestine down toward the rectum. There are a few points to keep in mind.
- You should be lying on a flat firm surface, like the floor.
- Start the massage roughly 20 minutes or so before you are likely to have a bowel movement. Establishing a pattern of regularity is important.
- Always massage in the direction that follows the path of the colon.
- The procedure should only take about 5 minutes.
- Lie down on a flat, firm surface like the floor.
- Start the massage beginning at the lower right-hand side of the abdomen, at the front of the right hip bone, and stroke upward to underneath the right side of the rib cage.
- Stroke across from right to left, underneath the rib cage, then down to the lower left side of the abdomen, and finish with an inward stroke toward the middle of the lower abdomen.
- Repeat this upside-down U-like motion 5 to 7 times.
- Next, place your hand on the lower right-hand side of the abdomen. Press down with moderate pressure, and scoop you hand in an upward C-shaped stroke 3 to 5 times.
- Repeat the same stroke below the right-hand rib cage, the left-hand rib cage, the lower left side of the abdomen, and the lower middle abdomen, 3 to 5 times in each position.
Beware Supplemental Iron
Various forms of iron can be constipating, so if you take a multivitamin that contains iron, it could be the cause of your constipation.
First, try taking your multivitamin in the middle of your largest meal, when the hydrochloric acid levels in your stomach are elevated. Iron requires adequate acid levels to be digested properly.
Second, consider taking a digestive enzyme after your meals. And finally, you can always switch to a multivitamin that doesn't contain iron.
An Herbal Constipation Remedy
Researchers at Siriraj Hospital have noted the effectiveness of the medicinal plant Senna (Cassia angustifolia and Cassia acutifolia) in relieving constipation. Their double-blind study involved 80 adult patients with constipation lasting at least 72 hours.
When compared with placebos and other remedies, an oral preparation of senna at bedtime proved the most effective in eliminating constipation within 24 hours.
While senna has always been effective at relieving constipation, it can have some minimal side effects. Since it is quite powerful, it may also cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, heartburn, and/or nausea. By combining other herbs with senna, you can often counteract these minor side effects. The following is a combination herbal tea very often used to relieve constipation.
Bring one quart of water to a boil and turn off the heat. Then, add ½ teaspoon of each of the following: caraway seeds, fennel seeds, peppermint leaves, and senna leaves. Let the mixture sit for 15 minutes and then filter the residue using a cheesecloth or other method. Having one cup in the morning and another at night is the recommended dosage for constipation relief.