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By: Dr. Vaishali Verma, BAMS, ND
Constipation is a common problem in people of all ages. The most common dietary and lifestyle causes that I have encountered in my practice are:
Dehydration: Most people don’t drink enough water.
Diet high in processed and refined foods, and low in fiber: In todays fast pace life, convenience foods are preferred by most people than cooking fresh food at home. Processed or packaged foods are made up of refined grains, contain preservatives and additives that make them shelf stable, and are devoid of minerals and vitamins.
Lack of physical activity: A recent study3 done in Hong Kong adults showed that sedentary lifestyle and physical inactivity was associated with constipation.
Stress: Stress stimulates the release of cascades of neurotransmitters in our body that shuts down normal digestive system of the body. If you are in a state of fight or flight, your body will divert attention to the most important organs such as brain and heart. Therefore, you will be more alert and your heart beat will be fast but digestive function shuts down. Chronic stress exposure may contribute to several problems including constipation.
Not paying attention to natural urges: This is a common problem in people of all ages especially kids. Kids are busy playing with friends that they ignore the urge to go the toilet. The stool then gets reabsorbed and hardened. This makes kids further avoid going to toilet because stool is hard to pass and hurt a lot.
Question: What can be done to relieve constipation? The answer is easy: Treat the cause.
Hydration: Institute of medicine4 recommends daily water intake for women on an average about 2.7 liters (91 ounces) of total water -- from all beverages and foods -- each day, and for men an average of approximately 3.7 liters (125 ounces daily) of total water.
Diet: I recommend avoiding all white foods such as white flour, white rice etc. and replacing these with whole foods such as whole grains, whole fresh fruits and veggies. Whole foods are rich source of minerals and vitamins, and fiber. whole grains, seeds, nuts, barley, couscous, brown rice, zucchini, celery, broccoli, cabbage, onions, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, dark leafy vegetables, etc. In my practice, I have seen that a simple change of replacing white rice from brown rice was enough to get the bowel moving every day. Insoluble fibers are not absorbed in the gut but they add bulk to the intestinal content thus facilitate transport and easy evacuation2.
Physical activity: Being physically active is important for overall functioning of body. Exercise as simple as walking, jogging, aerobic, or any other preferred activity that requires physical movement helps prevent constipation. I recommend 30 minute of physical activity at least 4 times/ week.
Stress reduction: Stress reduction activities such as laughing, playing, dancing, journaling, talking to a friend, listening to music or doing some activity that brings happiness to you will decrease stress and thus shifts the body back to normal physiological state.
Evacuate on natural urge: It is important to go to toilet when there is urge to empty the bowel. Continuous ignorance to natural urges impairs the mechanism by negative feedback. Kids should be taught not to suppress the urge to defecate.
Ayurvedic perspective on Constipation:According to Ayurveda, Vata dosha is responsible for peristalsis in our body. People who have vata constitution tend to suffer from constipation. Vata pacifying diet and lifestyle can help relieve the constipation:
Drinking a glass of warm water with ½ lemon juice added to it helps flush out the system.
Avoid cold foods and drinks, raw foods, beans, and dry crunchy foods. Such foods increase vata dosha in the body thereby contribute to constipation.
Drinking warm water, eating warm foods and well cooked vegetables help balance vata dosha thus prevent constipation.
Eating fruits such as raisins, peaches, figs, apple, or pear an hour after eating meals help relieving constipation.
Yoga poses such as chest-knee pose and sun salutations help prevent constipation.
To conclude, basic changes in diet such as high fiber foods, hydration and lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity, listening to body urges can regulate the bowel movements.
1.Lawton CL, Walton J, Hoyland A, Howarth E, Allan P, Chesters D, Dye L. Short term (14 days) consumption of insoluble wheat bran fibre-containing breakfast cereals improves subjective digestive feelings, general wellbeing and bowel function in a dose dependent manner. Nutrients. 2013 Apr 22;5(4):1436-55. doi: 10.3390/nu5041436. PubMed PMID: 23609776; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3705356
2.Stanghellini V, Bellacosa L, Cogliandro R. Fiber and macrogol in the therapy of chronic constipation. Minerva Gastroenterol Dietol. 2013 Jun;59(2):217-30.PubMed PMID: 23831912.
3. Huang R, Ho SY, Lo WS, Lam TH. Physical activity and constipation in Hong Kong adolescents. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 28;9(2):e90193. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090193. eCollection 2014. PubMed PMID: 24587274; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3938666.