Jill Davies, qualified herbalist and naturopath of over 30 years, shares with us her extensive knowledge of how herbs can ease constipation.
What Happens to you if your Bowel doesn't Move
A slow acting bowel can be an issue which can leave you feeling bloated and sluggish but if the constipation continues then any one of the many side effects can/will manifest: - allergies, asthma, backache, cramps, depression, fatigue, food cravings, headaches, hemorrhoids, indigestion, insomnia, irritability, low concentration, memory loss, menstrual problems, infertility, nausea, poor appetite, prostrate trouble, weight gain……the list is endless.
How we all got there over the Decades
In Britain, approximately 2 million people have chronic constipation and constipation affects around one in seven people.
Diverticulosis is just one of the many issues arising from constipation where increased bowel pressure causes sac-like herniations which often become filled with trapped faecal sludge which can become infected and cause local ‘rotting’ of tissue etc.
The Merck Manual (American Medical Industry Standard text for the Diagnosis and Treatment of Disease) states that in 1950 only 10% of adults over the age of 45 had diverticulosis by 1955 that had become 15% and by 1972 was up to 30%. By 1979, 45%....you see where this has gone and is still going.
Move it along, Change the Bowel
Just keeping the bowel moving is for some really difficult and there are those who have suffered since birth/small children, whilst others have simply acquired a sluggish bowel over time through food devoid of fibre, not enough water and so on. Constipation is a progressively degenerating disease. So if you can slowly alter this you will be surprised by not just how well you feel but how many other symptoms and illness just gradually slip away. This won’t all happen overnight of course but the immediate ‘poisoning’ that goes on with re-absorbed faecal matter will start making you feels very different quite quickly.
[Read more about fibre and constipation]
The Era of Processed Foods
So we know it but let’s hear it again, foods that are high in fat and low are fibre in particularly harmful to the bowel. The fibre that is found naturally in foods is often lost during the ‘processing’ of plants into ‘food’. Fibre helps peristalsis but there is another important aspect about soluble fibre in that it generates good bacteria. It is a ‘pre-biotic’ meaning it provides food for good bacteria to grow and thrive on. Without it the bowel will become sluggish, slower, less peristalsis will be triggered, all with constipation as a result. (Don't forget excess sugar, to include high fructose corn syrup, which will induce bowel inflammation long term.)
Herbs to Help Change the Pattern
Quite often we think of senna when we think of herbs to help constipation. This is a rather drastic, ‘jet propulsion’ type herb which can give you wind and pain - by excessively and forcibly moving the bowel. For this reason, herbal practitioners never use senna on its own and usually put it with softer, kinder bowel herbs that offset the gas, wind or cramps. But, even with a well-rounded formula, when you first start cajoling your bowel into activity it can behave quite radically until it has settled down into more balanced movements. This is partly because at the beginning the bowel dually dealing with the day to day faecal matter and equally all the backed up old matter.
What Herbs can do
Overall they will:
• Promote regular, healthy and complete bowel movements.
• They will also strengthen and stimulate the muscular movement of the colon.
• They can neutralise and eventually cease bloating, gas and digestive upset.
• Bowel movements will become softer and easier to move.
• They can either help retrain the bowel alongside better foods and water etc (or just keep helping a strongly genetic leaning towards constipation).
Remember, constipation causes the bowel /colon to literally swell, expand and change shape in every convolution possible. Apart from this, the bowel doesn’t exist in isolation, when it is ‘swollen’ it will crush, pinch or compress the organ next to it which could be the liver, gallbladder, kidney, adrenals, uterus or prostate, the list is endless. The leakage of toxins will also occur into these neighbouring organs systems and cells. Remember also that backed up waste matter not only invites microbes to multiply it will attract parasites (their larvae is in all foods) and worms.
How the Herbs Work
For the purposes of this blog post, I want to talk about herbs chosen to address long-term bowel movement issues. (Although occasional and odd short term situations can also benefit from similar herbs).
Many of the herbs used for a stubborn bowel focus on stimulating bile production from the liver and gall ducts. This category of herbs comes in different ‘strengths’ and the outcome can vary from gentle to more forceful. For instance, Dandelion root is gentler, whilst aloe leaf is much stronger. Other classic herb choices will be warming, helping to stop spasms and griping whilst assisting the bowel to move along. Ginger is often chosen for this role and equally, Fennel is often added alongside the ginger to further ensure wind and griping are minimal.
A really well known 3 blend of fruits is called ‘triphala’, which is a classic formula for bowel irregularity in Ayurvedic medicine. It is considered mild and ‘cleansing’. It is technically a demulcent laxative with some purgative effects and not only does it help the bowel it also aids the digestive tract, liver, and bloodstream. It is a wonderful ‘tonic’ in fact and considered both non-habit forming and safely used daily just like food.
Another choice is often yellow dock root which has a tonic laxative effect, equally of use to the liver/bile aspect as for constipation as a whole.
[Want to know more about the benefits of natural remedies over laxatives? Read this blog post by Clare here]
Both Flaxseed & Psyllium contain ‘Soluble’ Fibre
These are of course classics for helping the bowel. Flaxseed (linseed) is a ‘bulking’ laxative and it works due to the seeds soaking up fluids in the gut, helping to make the stool softer and encourage easier bowel movements but they must be consumed with approximately 5 times their volume of water. They are very soothing mucilaginous and anti-inflammatory (and will equally also help colitis and irritable bowel). Psyllium (husks and seeds) also contain high levels of fibre which will equally expand and become highly gelatinous when put with water or other fluids. This way ‘bulk’ is increased and the stool will find it easier to move as with Linseed.
The Right Foods
As you know you need plenty of vegetables and fruit whilst eating less sticky and gluten rich foods as these contain little or no fibre. Gluten tends to bind up the bowel and can act like wallpaper paste on the sides of the bowel wall, so take another look at your diet and see if some changes can be made, especially perhaps drinking more water, eight glasses a day!
Kitchen Herbs that Help a Constipated Bowel
There are so many and it can be helpful to have a list on hand that can routinely and varyingly be added to dishes. Either use as herb teas or in cooking/salads. They will all be really supportive to help reduce bloating and chivvy the whole digestive system along. Try Fennel, cardamom, dill, cumin, caraway, Rosemary, garlic/wild garlic and Peppermint. They will also help guard against any residual bacteria, fungi and virus to a certain extent which is more likely to occur and proliferate with a constipated bowel.
Over 50’s take Special Care
Remember that just by ageing there will be changes affecting the bowel function e.g. loss of muscle tone and subsequently slowed peristalsis. Lots of other factors can also come in e.g extra medications that affect or slow down bowel movements. With other issues, there can also be even less ability to exercise.
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Jill Davies, HNH, PhD, FAMH, is a qualified herbalist and naturopath of over 30 years. She is co-director of Herbs Hands Healing, which was established in 1978. Jill originally trained at R.H.S. Wisley and The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. Then she qualified in herbal medicine in the UK and natural healing and herbal medicine in America with Dr. Richard Schulze and her doctorate through Dr. John Christopher. Her company reflects her heritage as the great, great granddaughter of an apothecary. She has written 14 books, most of which are now available as a free download. Jill periodically teaches naturopathy and herbal medicine at an introductory and vocational level at The College of Naturopathic Medicine in London. She previously ran a European school with Dr. Schulze in natural healing and herbal medicine.