The occasional bout of constipation is part of life’s rich tapestry. More than now and then, however, can be a bit of a strain.
Straining, going to the toilet less frequently, and rabbit-dropping poos are all signs of constipation.
Other symptoms include bad breath, tiredness, headaches, loss of appetite, coated tongue, bloated tummy, flatulence, and skin problems. When it comes to bowel movements, ‘normal’ means whatever is normal for you. Some people go three times a day, others three times a week, or less. In general, people feel better with one or two good poos daily. The reason why most of us feel so good after a satisfactory episode is that when we defecate, brain waves change from alpha to beta, a more meditative and calming state of mind.
The digestive tract is one long tube, extending from the mouth at one end, to the rectum and anus at the other. Chewing precipitates a downwards, wave-like movement called peristalsis, which ultimately heralds a call of nature. Peristalsis explains why ‘the urge’ often happens after a meal. It is also the reason not to chew chewing gum, as chewing without food heading down straight away, unintentionally confuses your poor bowel.
Not drinking enough water is an overlooked cause of constipation. Without sufficient fluid, the contents of the bowel become dried out and difficult to pass. Eating enough fibre-y foods is a must. Fibre doesn’t get absorbed from the bowel, lingering to soaking up water, increasing stool size. A larger stool exerts more pressure against the bowel wall, particularly at the rectum (the last stop before Bondi). This pressure initiates a bowel movement. I am not too fond of ‘fibre-enhanced’ foods, preferring the fibre-rich originals such as wholemeal (as opposed to multigrain) bread, brown rice, fruit (3 servings daily), vegetables (3 vegetables and a salad daily), nuts and seeds (a small handful daily). If you need extra fibre, supplement with psyllium husks, linseeds or slippery elm.
Stress tightens many muscles, including the bowel wall. For some people, this causes diarrhoea, for others — those who react to stress by ‘holding on’ internally, stress will cause constipation. The tightness of intestinal muscles can cause the stressed poo to look like small pellets or animal droppings. If this sounds like you, the muscle relaxing mineral, magnesium will help. Regular and rhythmic exercise such as yoga or swimming also calms a tense bowel.
Every now and then some herbal help may be required. Perhaps when travelling, if this causes your bowels to be shy. Or if for reasons beyond your control your diet is not as good as you would like. This is the time to bring out the herbal teas, containing small amounts of senna (the laxative herb) and rhubarb root as well as herbs such as peppermint, fennel and dill, known as ‘calminatives’ that work to reduce any spasm of the bowel.
If constipation is your thing, a little detective work might be needed to assess whether you have a tense bowel that requires ‘gentling’ with fibre, water, relaxation and magnesium rather than resorting to harsh laxatives.