By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine
After decades of fiber-poor food choices, whole grains have become hot sellers. White bread, sugary cereals and snacks now boast more fiber than ever before. You can even buy whole-grain Doritos! And thanks to diets like South Beach and the Sonoma Diet, more of us are opting for fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
But, despite this new trend, chronic constipation is still an issue for a lot of folks – even if you eat a healthy diet. Although occasional constipation can affect anyone, chronic constipation is more common in women and people over age 65. It also tends to occur after surgery or if you are taking certain pain medications like codeine or morphine.
Fortunately, there are a number of natural ways to get things moving again. So, before you reach for the Ex-lax, try the following gentle alternatives.
The normal frequency of bowel movements varies widely from person to person – from once or more a day to three times a week. In general, however, you are likely constipated if you pass a hard, dry stool less than three times a week.
Constipation can make you feel bloated and uncomfortable and you may find yourself straining during bowel movements. Adding more insoluble fiber to your diet will soften the stool and make it easier to pass. Foods that are high in insoluble fiber include fruits, vegetables and whole grains, especially wheat bran, brown rice or whole grain bread. Another option is to sprinkle one teaspoon of ground flaxseeds over your food. Flaxseeds can be found at the health food store and some grocery stores, and they have a mild, nutty taste.
If diet doesn’t do the trick, try a fiber supplement made from psyllium husks. A natural fiber supplement will add bulk to the stool and soften it so that it’s easier to pass. If you opt for a supplement, however, make sure you take it with plenty of water, otherwise fiber can have the opposite effect and be constipating.
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No matter how you choose to increase your fiber intake, do it gradually. A sudden boost in fiber can cause gas, bloating and discomfort.
Probiotics, like lactobacillus acidophilus, can promote intestinal health by suppressing the growth of potentially harmful bacteria, improving immune function, enhancing the protective barrier of the digestive tract and helping to produce vitamin K.
There is some preliminary evidence that probiotic supplements also improve constipation. One placebo-controlled study looked at the effect a probiotic beverage had in people with chronic constipation. The probiotic drink, which contained a strain of beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus casei Shirota, resulted in a significant improvement in stool consistency and the severity of constipation.
Another recent study examined the effectiveness of probiotics on 636 people with constipation-variety irritable bowel syndrome. The patients were given a probiotic supplement containing Bifidobacterium longum and FOS. After 36 days, most of the participants reported that they were able to move their bowels four times a week compared to less than three times at the start of the study. They also experienced less bloating and abdominal pain.
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Look for a probiotic supplement that contains a variety of live Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacteria, along with FOS. FOS stands for Fructo-oligosaccharides, a carbohydrate that provides the food bacteria need to thrive. The minimum dose is one billion live organisms a day, which should be listed on the ingredient label. While that might sound like a lot, it’s actually about the same amount you’ll find in a cup of yogurt.
Get Some Feedback
Biofeedback therapy may also help people with constipation resulting from pelvic floor dysfunction – a condition where the pelvic floor muscles don’t function properly. It can occur as a result of obesity, an enlarged prostate or after childbirth.
Here’s how it works: Biofeedback therapists teach you how to better coordinate the muscles used to defecate. Approximately 70 percent of people have improved symptoms after biofeedback training. In one six-month study comparing biofeedback to laxatives in people with chronic, severe pelvic floor dysfunction, biofeedback sessions were more effective than the laxative, with 80 percent of the biofeedback patients reporting major improvements. Best of all, the benefits appeared to last at least two years.
To locate a biofeedback therapist in your area, go to the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback website at www.aapb.org. for a referral to a qualified practitioner.
One Last Thing …
What about herbal laxatives like cascara sagrada, senna or aloe vera juice? Some, like senna, are approved as over-the-counter treatments for constipation – and they work well as a short-term solution. Problems occur when people become dependent on herbal laxatives and use them for weeks, months or even years at a time in order to have a daily bowel movement.
Prolonged use can cause the bowels to lose the ability to move on their own, and has been linked to chronic diarrhea, potassium depletion leading to muscle weakness, irregular heart rhythms and kidney or liver impairment. If you’re tempted to use an herbal laxative for more than a week, make sure you check with your doctor.
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First it was Elizabeth Edwards and breast cancer. Now, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow is battling a recurrence of colon cancer, which has spread to his liver. If this sudden focus on cancer has you thinking, a new study shows how easy it is to prevent one of the nastier types of cancer – kidney cancer.
It’s information you’ve heard before – eat lots of fruit and vegetables. That’s what a group of Italian researchers found when they looked at 767 people with kidney cancer and compared them to 1,534 people without that diagnosis. Those with the highest intakes of naturally occurring flavonoids, which are found mostly in fruits and vegetables, were 20 percent less likely to develop kidney cancer than those who had the lowest intakes.
So belly up to the salad bar and stock up at the product aisle. Your kidneys – and the rest of you – will definitely appreciate this tasty bit of prevention.
Bosetti C, Rossi M, McLaughlin JK, et al. “Flavonoids and the Risk of Renal Cell Carcinoma.” Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. 2007;16:98-101.
Chiarioni G, Whitehead WE, Pezza V, et al. “Biofeedback is superior to laxatives for normal transit constipation due to pelvic floor dyssynergia.” Gastroenterology. 2006;130: 657-664.
Colecchia A, Vestito A, La Rocca A, et al. “Effect of a symbiotic preparation on the clinical manifestations of irritable bowel syndrome, constipation-variant. Results of an open, uncontrolled multicenter study.” Minerva gastroenterologica e dietologica. 2006;52:349-358.
Koebnick C, Wagner I, Leitzmann P, et al. “Probiotic beverage containing Lactobacillus casei Shirota improves gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with chronic constipation.” Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology. 2003;17: 655-659.