Keep moving to keep it moving 4/28/2004
by Marco Lam, L.Ac.
Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints in the United States and the cause of an estimated 2.5 million doctor visits each year. Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars on laxatives annually. According to the American Journal of Gastroenterology, while the exact prevalence of constipation in the U.S. population is not known, one epidemiologic study found an overall prevalence of 14.7 percent.
If you imagine the function of our intestines inside our bodies to be like a sewer system in a city, what would happen if the sewers got clogged up with garbage? Without elimination of the wastes, the city would soon be unpleasant to inhabit, and it is so with our bodies as well. Without regular elimination of waste products from our body, the toxicity of the wastes can lead to lots of problems, such as mood disturbances, headaches, flatulence, indigestion, fatigue, skin problems, a lowered immunity, foul breath and a lack of appetite.
It is a common belief among naturopaths and alternative healers that “death begins in the colon.” Constipation reduces the flow and absorption of vital nutrients in the body and can therefore have many health consequences. The blockage caused by the constipation forces the blood under more pressure than normal through certain veins and capillaries, causing the hemorrhoids and varicose veins. The waste matter in the colon may contain toxins, and the longer the transit time, the greater the chance they have to develop into degenerative diseases, such as colon and colorectal cancer. Other intestinal problems caused by constipation are diverticulosis (pouches in the intestinal walls that catch waste material) and diverticulitis, the swelling and inflammation of these pouches.
Farida Sharan, a naturopath and a local teacher of natural living, says, “Health is life, movement and energy. It is essential that our elimination also dances with life. By rejuvenating the gastrointestinal tract, we contribute to all healing protocols. Without exception, when healthy elimination is restored, one experiences a heightened sense of well being and often a release from other symptoms, as well.”
One of the hallmarks of Chinese medicine is that any disease can have many causes, and constipation is a good example. Seeking the root of the problem is the most effective way to treat it. Americans tend to be overly medicated as a rule, and many of the over-the-counter laxatives, while effective in the short run, foster increasing dependency and worse intestinal motility in the long run. Health practitioners agree that for most cases of constipation that do not have underlying functional causes, simple lifestyle changes can correct the problem.
Most health practitioners agree that one of the biggest contributors to constipation is a lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle. According to Norman Allard, a local chiropractor and yoga instructor, “While exercise can help, it can also exacerbate the problem if the person is not breathing properly. The problem is that we are not breathing naturally. In an organic breath, there is a rhythmic movement between your middle diaphragm and your pelvic floor diaphragm. That rhythm creates a natural wave-like movement through the abdomen. This movement through the abdomen prevents it from becoming stagnant or irritated. This movement keeps things flowing and massages the organs.”
Allard says there are numerous reasons that the diaphragm doesn’t move properly and keep the abdomen flowing, ranging from poor posture and trauma to emotional stress.
“Though the concept sounds simple, it takes great effort to relearn to breath naturally. It is often trivialized by people saying they know how to breathe, but correct breathing is the key to good health, especially in the elimination and assimilation functions of the digestive system,” Allard says.
The second most obvious lifestyle change people can use to improve their digestive health is to change their diet. One of the shortcomings of the modern diet is the high intake of refined white flour. Products with refined flour have little or no fiber, and subsequently the intestines have nothing to help the normal wave-like (peristalsis) motion pass digested material through the body.
“Eating a diet rich in dietary fiber, particularly through fruits such as bananas, apples, oranges and prunes, vegetables such as steamed broccoli, carrots or yams, and whole grains such as brown rice or quinoa, will offer an effective treatment for most cases,” says Sue Van Raes, a Boulder holistic nutritionist. “Secondly, since dehydration can often lead to constipation, it is critical to consume enough liquids in the form of purified water, herbal teas, diluted juices and vegetable broths throughout each day. A diet rich in dark leafy greens will increase the intake of important dietary minerals such as magnesium. Magnesium supports the smooth muscles in the body and is often used in dietary supplements, such as milk of magnesia, to support constipation.”
Van Raes says that chronic constipation can indicate a larger problem.
“The intestines may need support through probiotic therapy, replenishing the healthy bacteria in the intestines,” she says. “The number and type of gut bacteria play an important role in determining health throughout the body. Certain protocols for deeper healing often involve digestive enzymes, amino acids to build the integrity of the intestinal wall and supplements to balance the acidity in the body, such as oil of oregano.”
There are definitely times when lifestyle changes are slow to bring relief, but most alternative healers recommend using a combination of lifestyle changes and natural supplements to augment the digestive system rather than just purging it.
Mark Fisher, the owner of Skye Herbals, suggests milk thistle as an effective and gentle laxative due to its ability to increase bile secretion and flow.
“The healthy liver produces a liter a day of bile to help digestion and remove toxins from our body,” he says. “Our liver may become congested by alcohol, prescription and recreational drugs and the basic facts of living in the times we live in–the environmental toxins and high stress of modern living. Milk thistle is protective to the liver, which soothes the flow and promotes better liver function, thereby relieving constipation.”
Van Raes cautions that, while commercial products such as laxatives may bring immediate relief, true healing lies in strengthening the intestines.
“Through a whole-foods diet rich in fiber and nutrients, the body can restore health and balance from head to toe,” she says.