What can you do to naturally avoid constipation?
Ok, I’m going to do my best to stay away from the puns here. Let’s see if that works…
Here in America, and likely so in many other affluent countries, there seems to be an epidemic spreading throughout the citizens. About a year ago I was talking to a friend of mine, Kathryn Ross, MD. She is a Gastroenterologist, which is a medical doctor who specializes in the digestive tract. I asked her, “What is the most common issue presented in your practice?”. Without hesitation she said, “Constipation”.
Ugh, how unfortunate this is. Such a simple, natural, and essential act of elimination and it’s barely happening for so many people. With our busy lifestyles, who has time to sit on the toilet, right? NO! This isn’t a problem of time, and for most cases too, it’s not even about a medical problem. The culprit in this situation is most often lifestyle and behavior, as it is for so many other human ailments these days. The goal in this article is to discuss the these behaviors from a holistic point of view to help keep your bowels moving, but always please consult a physician if your constipation issues worsen or prolong.
Before we begin, it’s a good idea for you to get a little better understanding of how your body works in the waste management department. It will take too long here to discuss the whole digestive system, so I’m going to keep it simple and just discuss the Colon. Also called the Large Intestine, this 5-foot long wrinkly organ wraps over your gut like a necklace, and it has some pretty important tasks to keep you healthy. As food travels through, the colon squeezes out 90% of the water for your body to use. Enzymes also continue breaking down food and any remaining nutrients are absorbed. Good bacteria in there help with the breakdown too, as well as helping to make Vitamins B and K. Then as the waste gets towards the end of the journey the colon adds water and mucus to help with easy passage and elimination. The colon also uses muscular movements called “Peristalsis” which inches the contents along the line. You never feel this happening because it’s all going on automatically.
This is what happens in a healthy colon, but for many of us, easy passage and elimination is often an elusive experience. The things we eat, drink, do, and don’t do make all the difference between logs and pebbles (you know what I mean). Let’s take a look at several of the factors preventing a smooth move. This list is not necessarily in any special order of importance, however the first two are the most common culprits giving you a hard time in the can.
Did you see two paragraphs ago about how water is added for easy passage? This water comes from your body, but your body does not produce this water; you have to drink it. If you don’t drink enough water each day you are not only dehydrating your whole body and causing countless other problems, you are also creating a parched, desert environment in your colon. When it’s all dried out like this, the poo has to scrape and struggle to find its way out. If there’s no water, there’s no lubrication. If there’s no lubrication, movement is very difficult and sometimes almost impossible. Drink More Water!
Think about what happens when you get stressed…your muscles tighten up. Your colon is a muscle too. Do you see where I’m going here? When we experience stress our bodies magically divert all energy to the muscles for movement, that’s the famous Fight or Flight response. But if all energy is going to those muscles, other parts of your body must donate this energy. These energy donors will always be your digestive and immune systems. When under stress your colon basically tightens up and the peristalsis (muscle movement) nearly halts. Digestion and nutrient absorption barely happen under stress, and since the colon is now gipped like the hands of a child’s on her first roller coaster ride, nothing is going to move, let alone move out. Release the stress and everything will start moving better again.
Dealing with stress is a big subject and this will be discussed for you in future articles, just keep posted.
You want your stool to be solid and well formed. If it’s too hard and dry nutrients aren’t getting absorbed well and the movement scrapes along the inside of your colon. If it’s too soft and pasty it will stick to the walls of your colon like peanut butter and some say it could possibly be there for years, yes years, rotting. Fun huh? The best solution to balance out the waste and give you healthy poo is to eat fiber. Sadly, the standard American diet consists of very low fiber intake, and it usually comes in the form of breads and grains which dry you out. Most medical experts recommend about 25–35 grams of fiber a day, but to get your body what it really needs to work at its best, aim for closer to 50 grams of fiber each day. Yeah that’s a lot but it’s worth it. This not only helps your waste elimination, but also reduces cancer risk, gives you cleaner blood, and helps you drop excess fat and pounds easily.
Eating this much fiber takes some practice, along with other VERY important supporting behaviors like greatly increasing your water and healthy fat intake. I will write a whole article on the wonders of fiber soon to help you gain more understanding. Until then, eat more leafy green vegetables.
When you sit slouched over, hunched, or leaning forward for a long time, the bottom of your rib cage basically digs into your digestive organs, especially your colon. Without room to operate your digestive system will work at a less than optimal mode, slowing things down and making elimination more difficult.
Another note about posture, as your spine stays bent for a long time the individual vertebrae have the potential to press against some nerves. This may cause pains in your back or chest, but also if the pinch is in the right spot, say on the nerves that connect to your colon, this could cause your organ to temporarily stop functioning correctly until you straighten up and release the pinch. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, “Sit up straight!”
Your stomach doesn’t have teeth. The process of digestion and nutrient absorption works best when the food you consume is as soft and liquidy as possible. If you fail to fully chew your food and you swallow chunks of food your body has to work many times harder to break up those big chunks with extra churning, enzymes, acids and secretions. By the time it gets to your colon those big chunks are still chunks, just a little smaller. And your body still has to move them along and out, it will just take longer and be more difficult. That’s not what you want. If you take the time at the beginning and chew your food completely (ideally until it is almost a liquid in your mouth) you are setting your system up for the most efficient and effective digestion, absorption and elimination.
There’s a funny thing about the body, there seems to be a link for most people between how much you move your body and how easily your bowels move. When you exercise regularly, get your heart rate up, and get your blood moving that seems to have a positive stimulation on your digestive system. If you are having trouble in your waste management department, think back to how much exercise you have given your body in the last few days; it likely hasn’t been much. Get up and get moving, walking, jogging, dancing, something to move your body differently and I bet you’ll get things moving inside, too.
When you breathe properly –that is, breathing into your belly rather than into your chest– the graceful contraction and relaxation of your diaphragm literally massages your abdominal organs. Massage always increases circulation and movement, and that certainly applies to your colon, as well.
Breathing into your belly will naturally cause it to expand. This happens because as the diaphragm contracts it presses downwards creating space for your lungs to fill up, but at the same time it compresses your digestive organs down, thus the belly expansion. When this occurs it gently moves things a bit and this stimulates circulation and activity. Just by breathing you are keeping your colon and all your organs healthy.
Breathe deeply as often as you remember, it helps in so many ways.
If you go back several hundred years, before the modern toilet was popular, humans didn’t sit to poop, they squatted. In this natural position your spine and torso are straight and upright, and your hips and knees are deeply bent, getting your body close to the ground. The squat is the position the human body was designed to be in whilst defecating. Sitting on a regular toilet does not get your body close enough to this position, however there are ways to emulate a squat while still utilizing the comfort and convenience of your American Standard. You can purchase foot stools that fit under your toilet like the Squatty Potty which raise your feet up off the floor getting your knees closer to your chest as you sit on the toilet. This puts your body into a perfect, healthy position for comfortable elimination. Yeah, it seems odd, and it feels odd the first few times you use it, but you really do notice a positive difference when you release the hounds this way.
This wouldn’t be a holistic article if I didn’t touch on the non-physical side of this subject. In Ancient Chinese Medicine the Large Intestine meridian is associated with the energy of “Letting Go”. Curious how that matches. You can also link the concept of “Forgiveness” to the Large Intestine. What I am referring to here are your inner thoughts and emotions. If you are feeling constipated take a good look at your life and your thoughts: Is there someone you have trouble forgiving? Are you holding a grudge that you just refuse to let go? Is there a relationship or loved-one you lost in your past from which you can’t move on? Do you want something to be a certain way, but it may never be, and you can’t let go of that desire? Are you seeing a pattern here? These feelings can directly affect your colon function according to Chinese Medicine. When you can let go of these feelings you will be able to let go of your waste easier just the same. Honestly.
The Final Flush
In my past life (the unhealthy years) I had some occasional troubles with constipation, but over the last several years I have learned and practiced these concepts with success. All that I have listed here is the result of my own research and experience that I have also shared with others, and when followed result in healthy digestion. The thing to keep in mind about these practices is that they are not isolated to constipation prevention, every one of these ideas are practices that keep you healthy in all aspects of being human.
Keeping your body and your colon healthy makes your body thrive. It takes a little planning and effort, but the results create an environment fit for a life worth living. Take good care of yourself.