Constipation is the infrequent and difficult movement of the bowels. Its causes are numerous, including a diet low in fiber, irregular toilet habits, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, hypothyroidism, chronic tension, and even depression.
The ideal frequency of bowel movements is much debated by conventional and alternative medicine. On the whole, alternative therapists recommend at least one per day.
Nutritional Therapy for Constipation
A nutritional therapist's view of constipation is quite straightforward: What goes in the mouth affects how waste products will or -- in the case of constipation -- will not exit the body. And constipation is more than uncomfortable: It causes toxins to linger in the bowels, a problem that has been linked to a number of ailments.
The diet must be high in fiber to encourage regular bowel movements, and water and other fluids need to accompany the fiber so the stool has the proper consistency. Fiber can be added with whole foods or powder (such as flaxseed powder). A nutrient deficiency (perhaps magnesium or vitamin C) may also cause constipation, in which case supplements can help.
Prunes and prune juice have a laxative effect, but they can also have an addictive effect; that is, the bowel becomes dependent on them.
For regular bowel movements, eating insoluble fiber each day is important. Read food labels. Good sources are:
- fresh fruits and vegetables
- brown rice
Biofeedback Training for Constipation
Biofeedback training can give the person with constipation greater control over the digestive system. With the help of monitors that "feedback" certain biological levels, the therapy instructs people to alter involuntary functions of the body.
In one type of training, electrodes are attached to the skin around the anus to give the patient readings on the tightness or looseness of local muscles. The biofeedback technician teaches the patient to relax the muscles around the anus while pushing stool through the bowels. The therapy usually includes relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, that can be done at home to reinforce the effects of the training.
At least two studies have shown the effectiveness of biofeedback training for children whose constipation is attributed to the improper tightening of anal muscles.
Progressive muscle relaxation aided by biofeedback monitoring involves letting go of tension in the body in small isolated steps. Here's a sample exercise for progressive relaxation:
- Wearing loose clothing; lie down on a padded surface or sit in a comfortable chair.
- Close your eyes and tighten the muscles in your feet. Then release these muscles.
- Next, direct your attention to your calves, tensing and then easing these muscles in the same fashion.
- Continue up the body, including your arms and ending with your scalp.
Herbal Medicine for Constipation
Many herbs can effectively relieve the occasional bout with constipation. In fact, several laxatives used in conventional medicine contain ingredients derived from herbs, such as cascara and senna.
The aged bark of cascara encourages the movement of stool by irritating the bowels. Often taken in tincture or pill form, it's considered a strong laxative and may cause cramping. Other, milder laxative herbs include dandelion root and burdock root and leaves. Yellow dock can also be used to soften stools. These are commonly taken as tinctures.
Psyllium seed husks can be used to make a homemade bulking agent (similar to the commercially prepared psyllium products). Psyllium adds form and softness to the stool. It is important to drink enough water with these products -- at least eight ounces with the dose and eight ounces after.
Although herbalists consider herbs to have fewer side effects than drugs, the plants still should only be used infrequently. If the bowels are repeatedly blocked, the cause should be corrected.
The list of other herbs with promising laxative qualities includes:
- dong quai
Other Constipation Therapies
- Chiropractic Medicine for Constipation -- Some cases of constipation can be relieved by realigning the spine.
- Detoxification, Fasting, and Colon Therapy for Constipation -- Certain forms of enemas and colonic irrigation can be effective for constipation.
- Homeopathy for Constipation -- Common remedies range from nux vomica to alumina.
- Yoga for Constipation -- Several breathing exercises and poses can clear the body's energy flow, encouraging movement of the bowels.
For more information on constipation and alternative medicine, see: