Sunday, August 15, 2010

Bowel Basics 1.1: Getting Unstuck from Constipation

Constipation isn't fun.

The straining, the cramping, the frustration. For those who experience constipation, defined as the inability to comfortably pass a complete stool at least once daily, the associated feeling of general malaise, i.e. "yucky all over" will be all too familiar, and signifies the buildup of toxins in the body that aren't being eliminated normally through the stools. When the movement of waste products in the intestines slows to a halt, these toxins are then reabsorbed through the intestinal walls back into the bloodstream. That's why we can feel so ill if we get constipated: we are going through re-toxification! Headaches, nausea, irritability and fatigue are all sufferings that can result from even a few days of constipation.

Constipation + Hormonal Imbalance = Worse Hormonal Imbalance

Hormonal conditions in particular are sensitive to constipation, because excess hormones and hormone-like chemicals that our bodies are trying to excrete are readily reabsorbed from the gut into the circulatory system, which allows them to access and re-stimulate hormone receptors on various types of cells.

Constipation and Hemorrhoids

Constipation is a common cause of hemorrhoids because of straining to pass stool. Hemorrhoids are dilated, sore venous blood vessels in the rectum that may protrude outside the body or may rupture and bleed.

Start with Some Basics

To help get your bowels moving regularly again, here are some simple suggestions for daily use:
  • Drink 2-3 litres of water daily (sometimes this is all it takes, really!!)
  • Consume 35-40 g of fibre daily, especially soluble fibre like from apples and oats
  • Work your abdominal muscles and get cardiovascular exercise daily
  • Relax and give yourself a time-out; the digestive system functions in a "rest and digest" state, but shuts down when "fight or flight" dominates.
  • Avoid foods you may be sensitive to - as a starting point, try replacing cheese and meat with fibre-rich plant protein sources like lentils, beans, nuts and seeds.
  • Massage castor bean oil into the abdomen in a counter-clockwise circular direction (up on the right, down on the left) once or twice daily or go to bed with your tummy coated with it.
  • Get your daily dose of probiotics through yogurt, fermented foods or a supplement. If you're unsure which one suits you best, ask your ND.
  • Try a gentle, super-affordable and easy laxative that also provides you with some omega-3 fatty acids and protein: mix 1-2 tbsp. ground raw flax seed in a glass of water; or blend into your breakfast shake or morning cereal, and always drink an extra glass of water or two to allow the gel-like laxative flax fibre to form and do its good work.
When It's Time to Seek Some Help

If you are doing all of the above on a daily basis and are still not having a normal daily bowel movements, then it's a good idea to see a naturopathic doctor or other health care professional to help determine the root cause. We may introduce acupuncture, herbal medicines, homeopathics, specific dietary recommendations and exercises into your individualized program.

Note that cathartic laxatives like senna should only be used on an occasional basis because they irritate the lining of the intestines and can also train the bowels to become dependent on the laxative - which is exactly what people with constipation don't want to happen. Stool softening-suppositories can also be effective, but again, are treating only the symptom rather than clearing away the root cause. Similarly, enemas can be used on occasion to clear out the colon, but are more labor-intensive than you'd like for daily use, and need to be followed up with appropriate probiotics to replenish what they wash out.

Helping patients get on track with healthier digestion is one of my clinical priorities as an ND. Feel free to contact me with any additional questions you may have about how naturopathic medicine can help you develop a healthier digestive system.

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