Roughly 20 percent of the adult population suffers from constipation, which can lead to problems not only with digestion but can also significantly interfere with daily living and overall well-being. Here is how to relieve constipation naturally.
What Is Constipation, Exactly?
Constipation is defined as having difficulty emptying the bowels, which is usually associated with having hard stools or having problems passing stools. Someone is considered to have constipation when they produce fewer than three bowel movements per week, or have hard, dark, and small bowel movements that are painful or difficult to pass. (1,2)
The healthcare costs of constipation are staggering. Approximately two million doctor visits each year are for constipation, and Americans spend $725 million on laxatives each year!
Functional gastrointestinal diseases (FGIDs), which include chronic constipation, are among the most frequent illnesses seen by gastroenterologists and account for up to one-half of patient care time. (3) Chronic constipation is not only common and costly, but also frustrating to many individuals who experience this on a daily basis. This frustration can negatively impact the quality of their life and result in allopathic thinking, which focuses solely on fixing the problem short-term, often with OTC drugs such as laxatives.
4 Major Dangers of Laxatives
Unfortunately, frequent laxative use can result in long-term health consequences.
1. Damage to Intestinal Muscles
Laxatives have been found to cause structural damage to surface epithelial cells, which can impair the enteric nerves, or the muscles that deal with intestines. This damage to the intestines can alter gut motility, which can negatively affect nutrient absorption and assimilation as well as the production of important vitamins, such as B and K as well as neurotransmitter synthesis.
Relying exclusively on laxatives can cause the body to become dependent on them for regular bowel movements, which can eventually lead to further bouts of constipation if you ever stop using them. This creates a vicious health cycle for bowel movements and the GI tract. (4)
2. Risk of Cancer and Tumors
Laxatives have been linked to increased risk of developing colorectal cancer and other tumors. Phenolphthalein, the active ingredient in many laxative brands, has been shown to cause several different tumors. Low bowel movement frequency has been linked to cancer through the notion that increased concentration of carcinogens in the stool can get recirculated into the body and bloodstream and eventually lead to increased contact and adhesion with the gut wall. (5,6)
Laxative use can lead to dehydration, which can alter acid/base balance in the body as well as disrupt electrolyte balance.
Dehydration can negatively impact the entire body and has been linked to headaches, depression, anxiety, tiredness, cravings, and irritability. Electrolytes are imperative for relaxing and contracting the muscles, which include the muscles not only in your GI tract but also your heart. Electrolyte imbalances can lead to a feeling of tiredness, muscle weakness, seizures, and even abnormal heart rhythms. (7)
4. Nutrient Malabsorption
Overuse of laxatives can lead to nutrient malabsorption, which can be due to the decreased ability of the intestines to absorb nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and macronutrients.
Symptoms of malabsorption include having a bloated and distended stomach, fluid retention, foul-smelling stools, and stools that leave a streaky mark on the toilet. Overusing laxatives can cause frequent bowel movements, which doesn’t allow the body to have enough time to digest crucial vitamins and minerals. (8)
5 Natural Ways to Relieve Constipation
Not having frequent enough bowel movements can be painful, but there are healthier ways than laxative dependency to encourage natural elimination.
1. Warm Water
It is popular practice in Ayurvedic medicine to stimulate digestive juices through the consumption of warm water, especially first thing in the morning. Cold beverages are less favorable for the digestive tract, as they can cause the smooth muscles to contract, which can further aggravate constipation symptoms.
Warm liquids have been shown to increase the production of bile and digestive enzymes, two key components in bowel function and overall digestive wellness. According to Ayurvedic practice, constipation occurs when cold and dry qualities disrupt the colon’s ability to function properly. Warm water with lemon juice can balance this cold quality and can help support normal bowel movements. (9)
Perhaps the most common recommendation for easing constipation, adding more fiber to the diet is one of the easiest ways to ensure proper bowel movements.
Soluble fiber is able to absorb water, whereas insoluble fiber is found more on the tough skins of foods, which don’t fully get digested. Because your body can’t fully digest fiber, it plays such a vital role in ensuring smooth traveling throughout the digestive system.
Insoluble fiber helps to reduce constipation and keep the digestive process moving (i.e., bowel movements) because it does not dissolve at all and helps to add bulk to stools. Soluble fiber dissolves into a gel-like texture that helps to slow down digestion, allowing for better absorption.
Natural sources of soluble fiber include:
- Most vegetables
You can increase insoluble fiber in your diet by eating foods like:
- Nuts, especially Brazil nuts and walnuts
- Psyllium husk powder
Fiber works by helping to soak up water in the digestive tract, balancing the frequency of bowel movements while aiding in the reduction of bloating at the same time. (10)
Having imbalances in gut flora can lead to many digestive issues, with constipation being one of the main complaints. Healthy bacteria that live in the GI tract are essential for regulating bowel function and motility.
Taking specific strains of probiotics – such as Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus casei, and Bifidobacterium longum – have been found to ease symptoms of constipation, alter the composition of the gut microbiota, and increase GI motility. (11)
The oils found in ground flaxseed can exhibit laxative activity in individuals experiencing constipation. Flaxseed contains a substance called mucilage, which is a gum-like compound that has been shown to soothe and protect the coating of the digestive tract, easing symptoms associated with painful constipation.
The plant compounds found in flaxseed can also soothe the stomach lining and reduce inflammation throughout the digestive tract.
In order to reap the full benefits of flaxseed, the entire seed must be ground. If flaxseed isn’t ground, they will pass through the GI tract without breaking down.
Flaxseed should always be stored in a cool, dry place and refrigerated after opening to reduce the chance of the oils oxidizing. Start with one teaspoon a day and slowly work your way up to two tablespoons per day. You can add ground flaxseed to smoothies or mix with a Paleo milk of your choice! (12)
5. Reduce Stress
Experiencing high amounts of stress can alter hormone and neurotransmitter production, which can directly influence muscle tension, inflammation, digestive function, and enzyme production.
High levels of cortisol, which are associated with stress, can cause the body to excrete magnesium and alter the pH balance of the gut. This can result in tense digestive muscles and less microbiome diversity.
Changes to gut bacteria from stress can lead to longer term gut issues, like SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). SIBO and similar bacterial imbalances can cause bowel movement issues and lead to worsening of symptoms associated with IBS and IBD. (13)
Constipation and similar gut issues are uncomfortable at best, but there are healthy lifestyle tweaks that can be made to produce long-term fixes without the side effects of relying on laxatives.