Regular healthy urination and defecation are tremendously important to good health. Constipation can range from being a mild annoyance to a very serious issue. Treating it also can be as simple as just dietary changes, to requiring much more. In this article I’ll give you some crucial information around the whole subject of constipation, and what you can do to regulate bowel function naturally, so you don’t have to resort to pharmaceuticals or habit forming laxatives.
In the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine, we always ask patients about their bowel movements. Regular defecation is VERY important. What do you consider constipation? Depends on who you ask. Mainstream Western medicine typically considers anything from three bowel movements a week, to three a day as normal. As in many cases, my first comment on this is that what is normal and what is healthy are completely different things! Traditional Chinese Medicine says healthy defecation is once or twice a day. More than that is too much, less than that is not enough. More often than twice a day is associated with a kind of weakness. Aside from the discomfort and ensuing irritability, less than one poop-session a day can lead to toxins from the stool being reabsorbed into the bloodstream, causing or complicating many different health issues. In the long run, you can feel abdominal masses because of the accumulations, and then visible bloating.
Causes of Constipation
This can be quite a big subject. Sometimes the causes are clear, but in chronic cases there is often more than one factor. The most common cause of constipation is bad food choices, inadequate nutrition. Many diseases, especially those involving fever and dehydration can lead to constipation, short or long term. Weakness and debility can easily lead to constipation as can a sedentary lifestyle.
Drugs of all kinds, especially over-the-counter and prescription, are also one of the bigger causes these days. Anti-depressants, blood pressure medications, antihistamines, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen, and even iron supplements can all contribute greatly to, or by themselves cause constipation. Sometimes people experience constipation after surgery.
Traditional Chinese Medicine has been treating constipation for a long time. Like most health problems, it has multiple possible causes, each with accompanying signs and symptoms that corroborate their identification. This means that using Tradition Chinese Medicine to heal with acupuncture and herbs, different people will get different treatments, tailored to their particular version, or cause, or type, of the disease – in this case constipation.
Natural Constipation Treatment
In constipation, treatment should almost always at least involve dietary corrections, with possibly the addition of some natural supplements. If your problem is more severe, there are heavier duty herbs and techniques for treatment that you’ll have to find a practitioner for. Even then, you should still definitely incorporate the dietary practices outlined below.
Here is some information about how you would go about diagnosing your situation with Chinese medicine. The simplest way is to differentiate between Excess leading to constipation, or Deficiency. Generally speaking, treating deficiency type constipation is harder than treating excess type because rather than simply purging the excess, you have to slowly supplement and build the deficiencies in the body (especially fluids and blood). Here are some associations for these cases:
- Pain with or after bowel movements –> Deficient condition
- Relief of pain after bowel movements –> Excess condition
- Constipation of recent onset, with thirst –> Excess condition
- Constipation in the frail elderly, or woman, esp. after childbirth –> (usually) Deficient condition
- Constipation with dry stools but no thirst –> Deficient condition
- Alternation of Constipation and Diarrhea –> (a particular) Excess condition
To dig deeper into the problem, we can further differentiate into 5 distinct causes of constipation. You can stick to the simpler Excess/Deficiency perspective unless you find that the advice offered below doesn’t seem to be helping.
Why differentiate further? Constipation can range from being a mild passing annoyance, to being a serious long-term threat to health. Also, for some it could easily be treated by just eating more vegetables, but for others its going to take professional help. More detailed differentiation of the cause of the problem can lead to more intelligent and appropriate treatment and lifestyle modifications.
5 General Types Of Constipation
These are five general conditions in Traditional Chinese Medicine that can manifest constipation, as well as other problems in the body. Clues from all sorts of body functions tell the Chinese Medicine practitioner which of these type(s) the patient fits into. Often there is a complicated combination of issues, so to gain perspective, it often helps to first think only in terms of excess and deficiency to gauge the prevailing theme of the problem.
Here I also list a few of the other signs and symptoms that might accompany the five types/causes of constipation. In fact, in my practice of acupuncture and herbology, people often come to see me for these other conditions and through questioning them, when I find out they have constipation, they’re often surprised to learn that we have to give the higher priority initially to the constipation problem. Anyway, the types:
Heat(excess) type might be accompanied by dark urination, and feeling hot. Often seen in acute diseases with fever, but also the heat can come from some long term health issue, so your only clue might be dry hard to pass stools.
Qi Stagnation(excess) type often accompanies the other types and is easy to miss. In extreme cases they might also show abdominal distention and repeated belching, as well as the constipation. This is often a recurring chronic problem that comes and goes.
Qi Deficiency type people dont have enough energy to pass the stool. So they might also show tiredness in general, slow thinking, etc… This type often accompanies other types. These people may only show a general mild manner instead of more extreme fatigue signs.
Blood Deficiency type is stereotypically a woman but could be a male. Often accompanied by pale complexion, maybe easily gets vertigo, heart palpitations, or scanty menses. These people may also just seem calm or lethargic, rather than sick in some way.
Cold(deficient) type constipation sufferers may also frequently urinate, with long clear streams, have cold limbs, pale complexions, scanty/irregular menses. Often its hard to distinguish between this type and the Qi Deficient type. Often people are cold and qi and blood deficient.
Dietary Guidelines – for all cases
- Make sure to get enough natural fiber – sources are fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, and beans. Common thinking is that fiber scrapes the bowels clean, but actually, it absorbs water making nice sized, soft and easy to pass stools.
- Drinks plenty of water, preferably room temperature – At least a few glasses a day. You can also put some citrus peel in the water to help promote moving the energy.
- Avoid: coffee, alcohol, dairy, and anything else that you find gives you mucus.
- All raw, iced, or chilled foods and all energetically cool and cold foods should also be avoided. Ice-cream is very bad for the stool!
- Over time, coffee use will deplete you of vitamins and mess up bowel movements
- A moderate amount of milk can be beneficial for those suffering from constipation from dryness if they are not allergic to dairy.
- Dont eat products with baking soda/powder. Avoid yeasted bread and white-flour products.
- Totally eliminate refined sugar and sugar products from your diet.
- Anything processed, put in a box like instant oatmeal or instant whatever has been refined, probably with added sugars and other so-called ‘natural flavorings’ that are bad for you.
- Never eat junk food, never eat chemicals posing as food.
- Artificial sweeteners are very bad for you, so are the oils used in fast food.
- Don’t eat hydrogenated, synthetic fats: margarine & shortening are bad for everyone. Never ever eat them. (donuts are made with shortening).
- Avoid cooking with Corn oil; use olive oil or sesame or other oils used in traditional cultures.
- Avoid late-night eating, avoid complex food combinations. These tax digestion and elimination.
- If you hardly ever eat prunes, figs, walnuts, or pine nuts, then have some everyday for a few days and see if that helps.
- Find a dish that has fenugreek herb as a major ingredient, it can soften stools as well as help control blood sugar.
- Make a soup with 1 cup peeled and chopped beets with 1 cup of chopped cabbage and eat at night with dinner. This helps lubricate the bowels.
- Chlorella is a sea-algea full of nutrition, and is also a natural intestinal cleanser. I highly recommend it.
- Chamomile helps regulate peristalsis, the natural movement of the intestines. The tea is easy to find.
- Magnesium deficiency can contribute to constipation because the mineral relaxes intestinal muscles, helping keep peristalsis normal. Natural sources of Mg: Almonds, spinach, avocados, oysters, seeds, peanuts, buckwheat. Try to get at least 400-500mg a day.
- Flaxseed, 2 to 4 grams, ground up powder or pill, can not only soften stools and lubricate bowels but also give you good Omega-3’s.
- Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that affects bowel and brain function. The precursor, choline, is found in meat, legumes, egg yolks, fish, … If you use supplements, try getting 250-500mg a day of Choline Citrate or Bitartate.
- Get used to spending 5-10 minutes a day in the morning on the toilet, regardless of whether your bowel movements come or not. This will help train your body to go at the right time.
- Regular exercise can be contribute greatly to helping trigger bowel movements, especially if you’re the Qi Deficient type above. Also when stressed, the body steals energy from the digestive tract and sends it to the muscles. Regular exercise helps relieve stress and promotes bowel movements.
Specific Food Treatments
Any one treatment can work, but often you’ll need to combine.
- One apple before breakfast, and one before supper. Have some figs too.
- Spinach 250 gm and some sesame oil, and salt. Boil spinach for 3 minutes with salt, add oil to taste.
- Spinach 100gm and rice 100gm. Cut 3 minute boiled spinach and mix with rice gruel. Twice a day. Especially good for bleeding hemorrhoids.
- Banana, twice a day before meals. Especially good for dry stools.
- Banana and 30gm crystal sugar boiled together. Avoid in diabetics.
Qi Stagnation Type:
- Sweet Potato leaves, about 500gm, boiled with a small amount of cane sugar, or fried with table salt; twice a day.
- Almond, bush-cherry seeds, hemp seeds, snakegourd seed and arborvitae seed all lubricate the intestines.
- Peppermint and Chamomile teas combined can help soothe stress and kickstart the intestines.
Qi Deficiency Type:
- Black sesame seeds 60gm, honey 60gm, astragulas (milkvetch root)18gm. Pound sesame and boil in water with honey, for intake twice a day.
- Get tincture of Astragulus herb from your local health food store, or get the herb itself from Chinatown and make tea.
- Juice a Potato and mix with some honey. Drink it morning and evening for some at least 2 weeks. Mmmm.
Blood Deficiency Type:
- Hemp seed (10gm), perilla fruit 10-gm and 100gm rice. Pound seed and fruit to make a gruel to mix with the rice to eat twice a day.
- Boil mulberry fruit and drink twice a day. Eat the fruit itself too. Can also boil it in water with honey to make a paste.
- peach kernel, hemp seed, almonds, pine nuts in the same amounts with adequate honey ground up and put in egg soup!
- Sweet Potato 300-500gm, 2 slices of fresh ginger and some sugar. Boil in water until well done for oral intake.
- Five walnuts with warm water at night before bed.
Remember anything that can really help you can really hurt you too. This is also true in the case of herbs. There are some great herbs that are available for purging the bowels but you’re better off first to make sure you’re eating well. My favorite remedy is the cabbage and beet soup above – its packed full of nutrients!