Overcoming Constipation Naturally:

Surprising Habits that Hamper Digestion

Constipation can be an uncomfortable problem for up to 20% of the population and something I see regulary in clinic. Constipation is defined as having less than three complete bowel movements each week.

It is very important for our health to have regular bowel movements, ideally at least one fully evacuated movement each day. Our stool is one of the ways our body excretes metabolised toxins and hormones. If stool stays in the colon too long, these compounds may be recirculated and cause an increased toxin burden and hormonal imbalances. Stagnent or slow moving stool can also be at risk of being fermented by microbes, causing proliferation of nasty microbial species. These microbes release inflammatory compounds which may then cause a disruption to our healthy microbial balance and increase inflammation in the body. 

Constipation can be different for different people, the below gives some examples of the different presentations:

  • Dry, hard or pebbly stool
  • Incomplete evacuation – when you do not feel fully ‘empty’
  • Having to strain to remove the stool
  • Having to do an enema to empty your colon

Chronic constipation can occur due to various factors ranging from biological, psychological and behavioural.

Below are some more common reasons for constipation.

Although this sounds like an obvious reason for constipation, it is surprising how many people are actually not drinking adequate water to keep their bodies hydrated. Water is required to maintain electrolyte balance, and water secretion aids in intestinal mobility by lubricating stool to aid in its movement through the colon.

On average, two litres of water per day is needed to maintain healthy hydration levels. This amount increases with exercise or living in a hot climate as there will be an increase in fluid loss from sweating. Herbal teas can be included in your daily fluid intake, but coffee, black tea and sugary drinks are dehydrating so should not be counted.

Fibre is needed for healthy gut microbiome populations to thrive. If fibre is low, beneficial bacteria can starve and possibly die off. When there are low levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut, opportunistic or pathogenic bacteria can proliferate and cause dysbiosis, which may lead to a disruption of regular bowel movements. Dietary fibre is also essential for the fermentation process of healthy bacteria such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, which help with motility through the intestines. Fibre also adds bulk to the stool and insoluble fibre draws in water to help increase the bulk and push the stool through.

If you do have any digestive conditions, such as SIBO for example, it is best to talk to your health care practitioner as to which fibre is best for you, as some may worsen symptoms.   

Food intolerances
Food intolerances or sensitivities may increase constipation. Gluten and dairy are two common food intolerances that can have a negative impact on motility if there are underlying imbalances within the gut microbiome. Taking some tests, such as the Complete Microbiome Mapping profile, may help to uncover the imbalances contributing to food sensitivities.

Gut Infections and Imbalances
The healthy bacteria in our gut help to regulate bowel function. Any imbalances in our gut microbiome or an increase in pathogens can impair normal motility significantly. SIBO, candida overgrowth, H pylori and parasites are some examples of gut infections that can alter motility.

Low stomach acid and low bile output can cause a slowing of transit time. Stomach acid breaks down food efficiently to prepare it for absorption, but if the food cannot digest well it can stagnate. Bile emulsifies fats, which is a key to moving things along.

Low thyroid function and hormonal imbalances
An underactive thyroid gland can cause a slowing of metabolic function and sluggish bowels. Insulin and cortisol imbalances can cause disruption to motility and imbalanced female sex hormones such as oestrogen dominance may contribute to the constipation issue, or be a result of imbalanced gut bacteria, leading to constipation.

Medications and supplements
Certain medications including anti-depressants, antacids, anticholinergics, anticonvulsants, diuretics and poor forms of iron and calcium supplements can all have a negative impact on healthy motility.

Laxative abuse
Overuse of laxatives can lead to ‘lazy bowel’ which is an atrophy of the bowel muscles, leading to a reliance on laxatives to have any bowel movements at all.

Stress can alter neurotransmitter and hormone production, which impacts muscle tension, can increase inflammation, and reduce digestive acid and enzyme production leading to reduced digestive function

Sedentary lifestyle
Exercise helps to increase blood circulation, strengthens, and tones the muscles within the digestive tract and can contribute to stress reduction.

We can naturally improve motility with these tips:

  • Increase your water intake to an average of two litres per day
  • Ensure you are consuming adequate fibre in your diet from fruits and vegetables, legumes, and unrefined whole grains. Whole soaked flaxseeds or chia seeds are well known for improving bowel movements.
  • Include bitter foods in your diet – Bitter foods stimulate bile and digestive acids. Include foods such as roquette, dandelion, milk thistle, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, turmeric, and radicchio
  • Warm herbal teas first thing in the morning can stimulate digestion – herbal teas infused with lemon are a good option
  • Include a quality magnesium supplement; magnesium is a muscle relaxant. In the intestines, it calms spasms and improves muscle contractions. It also draws water into the bowel, which softens stool, assisting with easier elimination.
  • Aloe vera juice has a natural laxative effect, along with reducing inflammation within the intestines.
  • Regular exercise: Physical activity increases muscle activity in your intestines. Exercise in the morning can be helpful for stimulating your digestive system. Light exercises such as walking, swimming, stretching and yoga can support bowel function.
  • Manage stress with activities such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, spending time in nature, engaging in hobbies and warm baths.

It is important to work with a functional/naturopathic practitioner if you suffer from chronic constipation as they will be able to advise of the correct herbs, supplements and dietary modifications that are suitable for you. There are also functional pathology tests that your specialist practitioner can order to enable them to find the root cause of your constipation. Complete Microbiome Mapping, SIBO breath testing, Organic Acid testing, and adrenal and thyroid profiles are just some of the options available.

Nicole Brown, Functional Naturopathic Practitioner
Dr Kathleen & Team Global Consulting

Learn more about Nicole.