Have you pooped today? If you haven’t, you may be experiencing constipation. Other signs that your bowel movements are less than optimal include: constant straining; feeling like your bowel movement was incomplete; passing dry, hard, painful “rabbit pellets”; or feeling bloated, crampy or full of gas.
According to Ayurveda, a bowel movement a day is the key to keeping the doctor away. Ideally, elimination happens each morning within an hour of rising. It should pass easily, be light brown in color and well formed in the shape of a banana. It should not be sticky (i.e., stick to the bowl after flushing) or overly pungent smelling.
Food To Nutrients To Waste
Your stool is the end product of digestion of food. The digestive process is a sequential downward movement that flows like a precisely-timed assembly line that extracts nutrients and eliminates waste.
Food travels down the digestive tract from mouth to anus via peristalsis – wave-like automatic muscle contractions. After chewing, the food pauses at the stomach and small intestine where it undergoes additional processing and absorption of nutrients. The next stop is the colon where the remaining nutrients are extracted and assimilated; excess water is then absorbed into the bloodstream. The resultant solid waste is compacted and when enough accumulates, a reflex is triggered that pushes the waste out through your anus. Consciously contracting your abdominal wall helps release the waste.
This flow is automatic and powered by the the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS is a network of neurons embedded in the wall of the digestive tract. It is often referred to as “the second brain”. It is important to understand that although the ENS powers the entire digestive flow, the flow can be influenced by signals from the central nervous system (CNS). There is two-way communication between the gut and brain which means the digestive flow can be influenced by external factors (the sight or smell of food) and internal factors (thoughts or emotions like stress, anger, fear and anxiety).
What Goes in Must Come Out
The flow of the assembly line is disrupted when you are constipated. Fecal matter stagnates and the lingering waste ferments and putrefies, emitting noxious fumes which can cause gas, bloating, abdominal distention, headaches, cramping, lethargy and nausea. Aside from the immediate discomfort, prolonged chronic constipation can have serious health effects (i.e., hemorrhoids, anal fissures or rectal prolapse).
Why Constipation Happens
From an Ayurvedic perspective, constipation is viewed as a deficiency of apana. Apana is a Sanskrit word that refers to the downward flow of energy responsible for excretion. Dryness is generally the root cause of constipation on the physical level, and “holding in” or repressing feelings is generally the root cause at the emotional level.
Physically, the digestive process requires adequate moisture to process and absorb the food. If you can imagine stuffing 30 crackers into your mouth and trying to chew and swallow without any water, you can get an understanding of the importance of moisture in the digestive process! This moisture is necessary throughout the digestive “assembly line”.
Emotionally, apana energy helps you eliminate thoughts that are harmful or otherwise holding you back and making you feel “stuck”. When we repress or “hold in” our emotions due to fear or anxiety, it can lead to constipation. This makes sense if we remember the physiology of the enteric nervous system (ENS) and its two-way communication with the CNS.
Things That Impede the Flow
Western medicine and Ayurveda both agree that occasional constipation is generally caused by too much “dryness” resulting from improper diet and lifestyle choices. Eating foods that are cold, dry, old (leftovers), processed and lacking in nutrients and fiber are the major causes of constipation. Ayurveda also teaches that eating incompatible food combinations will disrupt the digestive process and lead to constipation. Here are some other lifestyle antagonists:
Irregular eating habits
Our body works in cycles that are in sync with nature and largely influenced by light and dark. The digestive process takes about 6 hours and studies have shown waiting 6 hours between meals is optimal for blood-sugar levels and weight control. Staying on a schedule reinforces the natural digestive flow. At a minimum, avoid late night eating.
Lack of physical exercise
Our bodies need physical exercise on a daily basis; constipation frequently occurs during an illness when one is bed-ridden.
Ignoring the urge
Routine suppression of the urge “to go” can halt the reflex contraction from happening and eventually lead to constipation. Children especially need to be monitored during playtime to ensure they take a break when nature calls.
Forcing and straining can cause veins in and around your anus to become inflamed and swollen, resulting in hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids can create discomfort during bowel movements which can lead to ignoring the urge… and then constipation.
Communication between the CNS and ENS means that emotions (stress, anxiety, fear and anger) can adversely impact the natural flow of apana and cause constipation.
Hormonal changes or weight of the uterus compressing the intestine can create constipation.
Travel disrupts the normal digestive and daily cycles and can be very dehydrating (especially airplane travel).
Parkinson’s and IBS can disrupt the apanic flow.
Calcium supplements, iron supplements, aluminum-based antacids, anti-depressants, anticonvulsants for epilepsy, diuretics or narcotics can create constipation as a side effect.
Don’t be too quick to reach for a box of laxatives! Overuse of laxatives will actually worsen your constipation. If you are prescribed a medicine for constipation, be proactive and consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner. Make diet and lifestyle changes tailored to your constitution to prevent future dependency on medications.
In rare instances, there could be a medical reason causing your constipation – such as an obstruction or colon cancer – so always consult with your doctor regarding your health concerns.
3 Types of Constipation
Individuals with a vata-predominant dosha have a body-type that is dry, light, cold and mobile. They are more prone to constipation and require extra attention to their diet and lifestyle to keep the downward flow of apana in balance. Vata individuals should emphasize foods that are warm, heavy, oily, moist and grounding. They should minimize foods that are pungent, astringent or bitter. Meditation, slow walks and restorative yoga will help to ground deranged vata energy and promote regular bowel movements.
Similarly, vata season (autumn and early winter) and vata time of life (old age) will exert a drying influence on all constitutions (vata, pitta and kapha). At these times, individuals with vata constitution will feel the influences of dryness more strongly. Pitta and kapha, will be slightly more susceptible to apanic disruptions and potential constipation.
But vata isn’t always the root cause of constipation. Sometimes, an excess of pitta (fire) can dry things out and create constipation. Just like a pan of water can be boiled dry if the heat is too high, excess pitta can dry out your stool making elimination strained and painful. Constipation that is due to dryness caused by excess pitta often involves liver dysfunction with congestion or obstruction of the bile. In this case, hot spicy food and vigorous sweaty exercising should be avoided. Cool, moist, bitter, astringent tastes and meditating by a water fountain would all help to restore balance.
Sometimes an excess of kapha (water) can create mucous congestion that clogs the colon and causes constipation. In this case, hot, spicy food and vigorous sweaty exercises would be beneficial in clearing the stagnation and getting things moving.
As you can see from these examples, it is important to identify the root cause of the constipation rather than blindly following home-remedies. Ayurvedic practitioners have an intuitive understanding on how to work with these energies and the individual doshas (vata, pitta and kapha). They use holistic techniques to successfully restore balance.
9 Home Remedies For Constipation
Consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner for comprehensive guidance tailored to your constitution (dosha). An Ayurvedic practitioner can provide customized solutions designed to rebalance your digestion including: yoga exercises, recipes, diet and meditation.
For occasional constipation (as opposed to chronic), here are some natural home remedies that can stimulate peristalsis and get things moving:
- In the morning on an empty stomach, drink a cup of warm water – not cold; do not eat or drink for 30 minutes.
- In the morning on an empty stomach, drink ½-1 teaspoon of melted organic ghee; do not eat or drink for 30 minutes.
- In the morning on an empty stomach, add a tablespoon of flax seeds to a cup of warm water; do not eat or drink for 30 minutes.
- In the evening about 30 minutes before bed, boil 1 cup of organic milk. Allow to cool to lukewarm temperature then drink. (Optional: vata or pitta can add a teaspoon of organic ghee to the boiled milk.)
- External oil massage to lubricate the skin and stimulate the downward flow of energy.
- Squatting exercises to stimulate the downward flow of energy.
- Pranayama (breathing exercises) – Anuloma-Viloma (consult a qualified yoga instructor).
- Meditation – 10 minutes at night and/or in the morning to reduce stress.
- Journaling – in the evening before bed to help process thoughts from the day.
1Apana energy is also the main influence in flatulence, pregnancy and menstruation and when apana is disturbed, these processes will likewise not be functioning at par).
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