One thing that can really take the pep out of our step is constipation.  The weighed down, bloated, dragging feeling can follow us for days, weeks, or longer.  Before you jump for the laxative aisle at the pharmacy, you may want to consider a few natural remedies.  Additionally, if you have tried the below remedies and you are still having issues with constipation, you may want to consult with your doctor to see if there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed.  For chronic issues, my go-to window is 4-6 weeks of consistent treatment before I seek pharmaceutical interventions.  If it’s an acute or intense issue, my window narrows to 24 hours if things are getting worse or 48 hours if there is no change.

What is Constipation?

The official definition of constipation according to the Mayo Clinic is reduced frequency of bowel movements for two or more weeks.  This usually adds up to 3 or fewer bowel movements in a week.  Alternatively, if you are having difficulty passing stool for 2 or more weeks, this is also considered constipation.

Besides having difficulty passing stool, constipation can also lead to abdominal pain, bloating, headaches, backaches, and sometimes bedwetting, especially in children.

What Causes Constipation? 

Constipation can result from anatomical abnormalities, issues with nerve conduction in the intestines, medications, food intolerances, and other issues.  Most commonly, the cause is more functional than medical:

  • Dehydration:
    • Is your urine dark in color?  Are you regularly urinating less than every 2-3 hours during the day?
    • Does your skin tent? Watch this video to see how to do this simple test.
    • Do you get dizzy easily when you stand up?  This is a sign of lower blood pressure and can be due to low blood volume as a result of dehydration.
  • Lack of Exercise:
    • For those who spend the majority of their time sitting, getting up for short walks through the day can really help improve the movement of your intestines.  This increase of blood flow and movement can speed digestion along.  Think of the muscles moving as you walk giving your organs a nice massage and encouragement to move along.
  • Disrupted Digestive Flora:
    • This is especially common after having used an antibiotic as they kill bacteria indiscriminately.  If you have been using a probiotic without success, consider switching to a different brand.
  • Low Fiber Intake:
    • We need plenty of fiber in our diet to form our stools.  Without adequate amount, digestion turns sluggish.
  • Stress:
    • Many people experience diarrhea as a side effect of high stress, but constipation can also be a result of chronic unaddressed stress.
How can I Address my Constipation at Home?

First, we can look over the list of common causes of constipation.  Have you recently had an accident/injury or surgery that affected your abdomen?  If so, you should get a medical checkup to see if this is contributing.  Do you have uncontrolled diabetes or nervous system issues, these should also be medically investigated.  Are you taking any medications or over the counter supplements?  Check these to see if constipation is a common side effect.  If these causes have been ruled out, consider the following options:

Increase your water intake.

Divide your weight in pounds in half and then aim to drink that many ounces of water.  For instance, if you weigh 180 pounds, aim for 90 oz of water daily.  Yes, you will have increased frequency of urination, but after about two weeks, your body will adjust and this will resolve.

Increase your exercise, specifically walking.

Aim for 20 or more minutes of sustained walking daily.  During the nasty weather, you may consider walking on an indoor track or at your local mall – many open early for walkers.

Consider a probiotic.

My rules of thumb when choosing a good product are as follows: 5 or more strains of bacteria including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains minimally, 5 billion CFU (Colony Forming Units) per dose, and a product that is refrigerated.  Unfortunately, while experiencing digestive symptoms, eating fermented foods rarely delivers the amounts of bacteria needed to re-seed your intestines, but after a month or so of taking a probiotic twice daily, most people can maintain their healthy gut bacteria through diet.

Increase your fiber intake.

This should come from a variety of sources including vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, organic legumes, and organic whole grains.  My favorite way to do this is to make a chia seed pudding.  1/4 cup of chia seeds per 2 cups of milk or milk substitute, refrigerate for around 2 hours, and you will have a tapioca-like pudding.  A great goal is 25 – 40 grams of fiber per day as a minimum.

Initiate a mindfulness practice including deep breathing exercises.

This will help address stress and trigger your body’s rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system to engage.

Gentle osmotic laxatives.

My two favorites are magnesium and vitamin C.  If you have ever had too much of either, you may have experienced loose stool.  Both magnesium and vitamin C, when taken in amounts higher than the body, can absorb remain in the large intestine and pull water in too.  This creates softer easier to pass stool.

castor-oil applications to the abdomen.

These can increase blood flow to the intestines and help encourage the movement of your intestines while you sleep.  Do not use this treatment if you are pregnant as it can also trigger uterine contractions.

I hope this has given you a few new tools to use when constipation becomes an issue.  Remember, if your symptoms are not responding in 4-6 weeks or if constipation returns time and time again, be sure to schedule an appointment with a health care provider to discuss the cause and additional treatment options.  Constipation is not a normal function and can lead to additional symptoms.  There is no reason to “just live with it”.

To our health!

-Dr. Currey