by Dr. Bruce West
Chronic constipation is a serious problem in this country. Except for a tiny percentage of specific cases, constipation is easily and completely correctable. While many people (including many so-called medical experts) feel that constipation is not much more than a nuisance, this is not really the case. Constipation can contribute to many other problems, including allergies, arthritis, skin problems, prostate problems, female problems, headaches, overweight, and of course colon problems, including diverticulitis and even cancer.
Why are so many people chronically constipated? What causes this problem and what can be done about it? For the most part, constipation is brought on by poor dietary and exercise habits, and by other common and easily correctable causes, which I list below.
A smaller number of individuals actually have little control over their problem and suffer from what I call congenital constipation. While the cases of congenital constipation are rare, they do exist. This usually comes about when an individual is born with a deformed gut. In most instances, the colon is grossly elongated, or has sections without nerve or muscle tone. A good gastroenterologist (and sometimes a surgeon) is in order in these cases.
Causes of Constipation
For the most part, causes of constipation can be broken down into a few simple categories:
- Prescription Drugs: First and foremost, make sure your prescription medication is not causing the constipation. Look up all your drugs in a drug handbook.
- Lack of Water: Since stools are formed from the remnants of food mixed with water, it stands to reason that water intake has a lot to do with bowel habits. Unfortunately, many people actually dislike water and therefore don’t drink enough.
- Lack of Exercise: Like any other part of the body, the gut can benefit from muscular exercise. If you never exercise, you can be more prone to constipation.
- Diet: A steady diet of processed foods causes all kinds of problems, not the least of which is constipation. If your diet is made up of almost all cooked foods, you will probably always suffer from constipation. Raw foods contain enzymes which aid in digestion and contribute to a healthier colon.
- Lack of Fiber: Most people would not recognize a healthy stool, because it is different from what many have learned. When you have plenty of water, fiber, and roughage in your diet, your stool should be large, well-formed, and not overly hard or soft.
- Oil: Lack of dietary oil or the wrong types of oils in the diet will also contribute to constipation.
- Nutritional Deficiency: The greatest nutritional cause of constipation is lack of sufficient vitamin B in the diet. Without vitamin B, your muscles are unable to contract properly; the muscles of the gut and colon are no exception. Since food moves along the gut by muscular peristalsis, good muscular action is absolutely critical.
In order for material to move through the colon in a timely fashion, your body contracts muscles above the stool while it relaxes the muscles below. This moves the materials and stool through your colon easily. If you are deficient in vitamin B, this muscular action will be impaired. The end result can be constipation and possibly a flaccid, stretched out, and even prolapsed colon.
- Hormones: A sluggish thyroid can interfere with the hormones that aid in gut reactions. Since many thyroid conditions go undiagnosed, this can be an insidious problem and a serious cause of constipation. As long as you suffer from sluggish thyroid function, you may find it impossible to become regular and enjoy normal bowel function.
- Structural Problems with the Colon: As discussed, congenital deformities in the colon can cause constipation. However, other structural problems can cause constipation too, and most of these are readily correctable. The most common is a combination of “lazy gut” (usually brought on by a vitamin B deficiency) and prolapse. A prolapse is when a portion of the colon (usually the transverse portion) drops. This creates all types of pressures and problems in the gut. You may never know you have this problem unless you have an x-ray taken of your colon.
How to Solve Constipation
To only say “Drink water, eat carrots and apples, and take fiber” oversimplifies the formula for correcting a serious problem. The following breakdown of constipation therapies for the varying causes will give you a way to more effectively rid yourself of constipation:
- Prescription Drugs: Obviously you must work with your doctor if you take prescription medication that can cause constipation.
- Lack of Water: When it comes to water, there is no one recommended amount (i.e., eight glasses daily). In most cases, know that you need to drink more water. If you can’t tolerate the taste of water, get a Reverse Osmosis water filter. They produce the best tasting water.
- Exercise: If you don’t exercise, start. Walking for at least half an hour four times weekly is a great way to begin. Thereafter, weight lifting (for men and women), aerobics, dance, and more are all excellent.
- Diet: You simply must eat at least 30% of your foods raw (40-50% is better)—that means fruits and vegetables. You must decrease or eliminate processed foods from your diet. If you are severely constipated, you must decrease your consumption of meat (at least until your problem is solved).
- Fiber: A large percentage of the healthy stool is made up of undigested fiber. Dietary fiber is found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes. If you don’t eat lots of fiber, you simply cannot have a normal stool. Eat lots of raw fruits and vegetables. Eat some grain cereals, including oatmeal.
Even with these dietary changes, some people need to supplement their diets with fiber. We recommend the use of a psyllium husk product (available in most health food stores). Get a product that contains only psyllium husks and no additives.
Start by taking one tablespoon in a glass of pure water, followed by another glass of pure water. If necessary, you can slowly increase your dose of psyllium to two tablespoons in water (always followed by a glass of pure water) up to three times daily. Find the dosage that keeps your bowels normal. Be sure to use plenty of pure water. Also, note that it’s best to check with your doctor before starting on a fiber program.
- Oil: Omega-6 oils have a tendency to constipate, while omega-3 oils tend to ease constipation. Dietary changes will automatically reduce your consumption of omega-6 oils, because they are found in margarines and almost all processed foods and salad dressings. At the same time, take a tablespoon of raw, unprocessed flax seed oil daily.
- Vitamin B: By changing your diet, you will get more vitamin B. However, most badly constipated people need a supplement. We use Cataplex B from Standard Process. This is a nutrient made from raw food ingredients, with the enzymes and ancillary nutrients intact. One to two tablets (taken three times a day with meals) is the standard dose.
- Hormones: If you suffer from chronic constipation, check your thyroid. Your doctor can do a blood test, but it will often not detect a sluggish thyroid. You can check your thyroid by taking your temperature via the Barnes Thyroid Test. The following is a summary of that information:
Always use an oral thermometer. Take a reading of your underarm temperature. Have a previously shaken down thermometer at your bedside before you go to bed. Immediately upon awakening (before you start to move around), place the thermometer under your arm pit. Take the reading after ten minutes. Repeat this procedure for at least five days. Get the average of these temperatures. If it is below 97.2, suspect a sluggish thyroid (functional hypothyroid). If it is below 97, you are almost sure of this condition. Either way, nutritional support for your thyroid gland is in order.
A tablespoon of flax oil daily will go a long way in supporting thyroid function. We generally also recommend Thytrophin (a thyroid extract product from Standard Process). Thytrophin contains no thyroid hormones and will not act like a drug. One tablet, three times daily with food, is the usual dose. In addition, iodine may be necessary. We use either 5-6 Cataplex F or 1-3 Prolamine Iodine (unless you are allergic to iodine). Using this approach, allow up to six months for thyroid improvement.
- Structural Problems: If you suffer a prolapsed colon, you will probably need to do slant board exercises. This will allow you to use gravity in your favor. Set up a slant board. It is best to start with a slight incline (generally with the end lifted 6″ or so).
You will slowly increase the slant until your board is chair high at one end. Always check with your doctor before you begin slant board exercises. This is particularly true if you suffer from high blood pressure or have had a stroke.
Lie on your back with your head at the lower end of the board. When in position, place your hands flat on your lower abdomen and lift inward and upward. Hold this pressure and repeat 20 times. Next, suck your lower abdomen up and toward your spine. Hold and relax. Repeat 20 times. Next, press in with a ball and roll it around your lower abdomen while in the decline position. And finally, bring your knees to your chest; lower and repeat 20 times. Get up slowly.
For serious colon problems, colon therapy (colonics) can be a godsend. Be sure to find a colon therapist who is certified or otherwise extremely well qualified, with lots of experience and a scrupulously hygienic operation. In this procedure, where water is gently washed through the colon and out, many types of problems can be eliminated. It is not unusual for diverticulosis to be eliminated. And in many instances, dropped and prolapsed colons can be corrected.
If you need professional help, a chiropractor or acupuncturist who practices kinesiology is usually very knowledgeable about the colon.
If you follow these procedures, you will banish constipation from your life. When you do, you will be adding years to your life, and more importantly, life to your years.