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Chronic Constipation

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  • Fifteen to 20 percent of the general population experience chronic constipation, characterized by hard, dry and difficult to pass stools, and/or having less than three bowel movements per week
  • Chronic constipation has been linked to several serious health problems, including diverticulitis, kidney disease, certain cancers, hyperthyroidism, Parkinson’s disease and more
  • Squatting when defecating, getting regular exercise and eating a fiber-rich diet of real food can go a long way toward remedying the problem. Certain foods can also be used to relieve constipation and help keep you regular
 

Health Effects Associated With Chronic Constipation and Foods That Help Relieve It

December 07, 2016 | 296,473 views
| Available in EspañolDisponible en Español

By Dr. Mercola

Estimates suggest anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the general population experience chronic constipation,1,2,3 characterized by hard, dry and difficult to pass stools, and/or having less than three bowel movements per week.

While temporary constipation can be the result of simply eating poorly for a day or two, chronic constipation has been linked to a number of other, more serious health problems, including:

Causes and Risk Factors

Stool is the end result of digestion, which starts in your mouth and ends in your large intestine. When you chew, the food mixes with saliva, which starts the digestive process to break the food down.

As the food makes its way through your small intestine, nutrients and water are extracted, leaving only the waste products your body cannot use. A number of factors can affect the consistency and mobility of your stool, increasing your risk of developing chronic constipation. These include:

Lack of beneficial gut microbes, often caused by a lack of fiber in the diet.5

A low-fiber diet also makes your intestines more vulnerable to infection.

Fiber promotes bulkier, softer stools, and helps keep your intestinal walls intact6

Certain medications and supplements (such as antidepressants, opioids, antacids, blood pressure medications, diuretics and iron supplements)7,8,9,10

Excessive or chronic use of laxatives

Frequently ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement (for instance, to avoid using public toilets)

Dehydration

Magnesium deficiency

The following high-risk groups are also more likely to experience chronic constipation:

Women, especially during pregnancy or after giving birth. The weight of the developing baby normally sits on the intestines and can slow the motility or movement of the stool through the digestive tract.

As the stool slows down more water is extracted by the body, making the stool hard, dry and more difficult to pass. Older adults, due to lower physical activity level and slow-down of the digestive tract.

Lower-income individuals,11 because they may not be able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables, which provide fiber for their diets

People who have just had surgery. They may be nervous about pushing, may have reduced physical mobility and/or may not be eating their normal diet, all of which can contribute to constipation.

Certain medical conditions can also affect the ability of your intestinal tract to function normally, including:12,13

Conditions that cause blockage, such as tumors, inflammation or swelling and/or anal fissure

Diabetes

Conditions that affect the nerves in your intestines

Spinal cord injuries, brain injuries and stroke

Conditions involving the muscles used in elimination.

Weakened pelvic muscles or pelvic muscles which do not coordinate relaxation and contraction (dyssynergia)

Conditions that slow movement through the intestines, such as autonomic neuropathy and multiple sclerosis (MS)

Conditions that affect your hormones, such as hyperparathyroidism and hypothyroidism

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and/or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Connections Between Constipation and Your Health

Chronic constipation should not be taken lightly. Aside from causing pain and affecting your quality of life, it can have a significant impact on your overall health. For starters, chronic pushing and painful stools may predispose you to large hemorrhoids, which can be quite aggravating and painful.

Your colon was designed to hold a few pounds of stool, but when constipated your colon may hold up to 10 pounds of dry, hard feces. The sheer volume of stool alone can stretch your colon, irritate the lining of the colon (mucosa) and produce toxins while waiting to be eliminated.

Chronic constipation can also lead to tearing of the anus (anal fissure). These fissures are caused by trauma to the inner lining of the anus.14 Pushing out large, hard stools can also result in some of your intestines protruding from the anus (rectal prolapse), which requires surgical intervention.15

Postponing surgery increases your risk of further stretching your anal sphincter, and increases the amount of intestines that protrude. Chronic constipation can also affect the genital and urinary health of women.

Because the colon and female reproductive organs are structurally close, pressure from large amounts of stool in the colon can lead to rectal prolapse in the vagina,16 increasing the potential that the bladder will not empty completely, or resulting in reflux of urine from the bladder back into the kidneys, called vesicoureteral reflux.17

This reflux causes permanent kidney damage and increases the risk of kidney infections. Chronic constipation also increases the risk of kidney disease in men.

Chronic Constipation May Raise Your Risk of Kidney Disease

According to recent research, men and women suffering with constipation had, on average, a 13 percent higher risk of kidney disease than those who were not chronically constipated.18,19,20 The study had a follow-up period of seven years. They also had a 9 percent higher risk of kidney failure.

Overall, severe constipation led to a quicker deterioration of kidney function, although the exact mechanism was undetermined. According to co-author Dr. Csaba Kovesdy, a professor of medicine in nephrology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Memphis VA Medical Center:21

"Our findings highlight the plausible link between the gut and the kidneys and provide additional insights [into the possible causes of kidney disease]. Our results suggest the need for careful observation of kidney function trajectory in patients with constipation, particularly among those with more severe constipation."

How Constipation Relates to Parkinson's Disease

Your gut and brain health are closely connected. A number of studies have delved into the role of gut bacteria in the workings of the gut-brain axis, and how they benefit your mental and psychological health.

For instance, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders are increasingly recognized as being, in part, related to an unbalanced microbiome. This interlinking may also shed light on why chronic constipation is associated with a neurological disease such as Parkinson's.

In one recent mouse study, proteins implicated in the disease were found to travel from the gut into the brain over the course of several weeks. These findings suggest that, in some cases, Parkinson's disease may have its origins in the gut. The question is, what causes alpha-synuclein to accumulate in the gut? No one knows for sure, but theories include:

  • Presence of bacteria that produce curli — a compound that causes an aggregation of alpha-synuclein
  • Pesticide exposure
  • Acid reflux
  • Chronic inflammation

Synthetic alpha-synuclein — a protein that accumulates in the brains of those with Parkinson's — were injected into the mice's stomachs and intestines. After seven days, clumps of alpha-synuclein were observed in the animals' guts. Clumping peaked after 21 days. By then, clumps of alpha-synuclein were also observed in the vagus nerve, which connects the gut and brain. As noted by Science News:22

"Sixty days after the injections, alpha-synuclein had accumulated in the midbrain, a region packed with nerve cells that make the chemical messenger dopamine. These are the nerve cells that die in people with Parkinson's, a progressive brain disorder that affects movement.

After reaching the brain, alpha-synuclein spreads thanks in part to brain cells called astrocytes, a second study suggests. Experiments with cells in dishes showed that astrocytes can store up and spread alpha-synuclein among cells … As alpha-synuclein clumps slowly crept brainward, the mice began exhibiting gut and movement problems … In many ways, the mice resembled other mice that have mutations that cause Parkinson's-like symptoms …"

Foods That Relieve Constipation

If you struggle with frequent constipation, reaching for a laxative may be a tempting option. However, doing so may simply exacerbate the problem as chronic laxative use can cause dependency. Your best bet is to address your diet instead.

Processed foods contribute to constipation in a number of ways, so swapping them for whole, fresh foods may do the trick. Not only are processed foods typically low in fiber, they also tend to be high in sugars and grains that feed unhealthy gut bacteria. You may also want to add more of specific foods known to relieve constipation.23

Food Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation

Water and/or warm beverages such as tea or warm water with lemon

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Increasing your water intake may resolve the problem if your dry stools are due to dehydration.

Drink enough that your urine is straw colored. If it's dark yellow, then you're dehydrated. If it's colorless you are drinking too much

Leafy greens such as spinach, Swiss chard and kale

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Fiber, magnesium and water

Avocado

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Magnesium

Fermented vegetables

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Healthy bacteria (probiotics), fiber and digestive enzymes

Yogurt from raw organic grass-fed milk (to identify healthier commercial brands, see the Cornucopia Institute's Yogurt Buyer's Guide)

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Healthy bacteria (probiotics)

Prunes

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Fiber. The skin also has mild laxative properties

Radishes

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Compound that promotes healthy peristalsis (relaxation and contraction of your intestines)

Flax seeds (freshly ground)

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Fiber

Organic psyllium

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Fiber

Beans

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Fiber, magnesium

Dark chocolate (cacao)

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Magnesium

Olives and olive oil24,25

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Promotes bile production, which aids digestion. The fats also promote intestinal wall health and loosen stool.

CONTRAINDICATED for babies and young children. Use small amount of pureed prunes instead and please remember that the vast majority of olive oil sold in the U.S. is adulterated. So be very careful and do your research before you but it

Figs and fig paste26

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Fiber and prebiotics. They also increase production of mucin (proteins that form a physical barrier that protects your intestinal wall from damage) and improve peristalsis

Aloe vera27,28

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Acts as a stimulant laxative. Aids with protein digestion and helps strengthen intestinal muscles.

CONTRAINDICATED for pregnant or nursing women, children, diabetics and those with hemorrhoids, kidney problems, intestinal diseases such as Crohn's, and those allergic to plants from the liliaceae family such as onions, garlic and tulips

Magnesium supplement

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Magnesium

Castor oil29

Ingredient(s) that help relieve constipation: Works as a stimulant laxative, causing increased movement and contractions in the small intestine.

BEWARE: Castor oil is also used to induce vomiting, so should be used sparingly and only as a short-term or occasional remedy in lieu of chemical laxatives. A typical dose is around 15 milliliters (mL), or about 3 teaspoons.

CONTRAINDICATED FOR PREGNANT WOMEN, AS IT STIMULATES UTERINE CONTRACTIONS AND MAY CAUSE FETAL HARM, INCLUDING FETAL ABNORMALITIES.

Also contraindicated if you have rectal bleeding, stomach pain, symptoms of appendicitis, symptoms of blocked intestine and vomiting

Long-term use can result in serious adverse effects, including dehydration, diarrhea, potassium depletion, malnutrition, muscle weakness and swelling of the bowel

Squatting and Exercise Can Also Reduce Constipation

The position you use when going to the bathroom can significantly impact the ease with which you eliminate. It can also influence your risk of bowel and pelvic problems, including constipation, hemorrhoids and more. Most of you reading this probably sit to evacuate your bowel, but this requires you to apply additional force (straining), which has unwanted biological effects, including a temporary disruption in cardiac flow.

Sitting on a modern toilet is designed to place your knees at a 90-degree angle to your abdomen. However, the time-honored natural squat position places your knees much closer to your torso, and this position actually changes the spatial relationships of your intestinal organs and musculature, optimizing the forces involved in defecation.

Squatting straightens your rectum, relaxes your puborectalis muscle and allows for complete emptying of your cecum and appendix without straining, which prevents fecal stagnation and the accumulation of toxins in your intestinal tract.

It is instructive that non-westernized societies, in which people squat, do not have the high prevalence of bowel disease seen in developed nations; in some cultures with traditional lifestyles, these diseases are uncommon or almost unknown. If you have trouble with bowel movements, especially constipation, I urge you to give the squat position a try.

Special toilets and stools that get your body into a squat position can help you get closer to the ideal, even if you've been sitting for decades. One simple and inexpensive solution is to place a stool near your toilet. Placing your feet on the stool will raise your knees to simulate a squat position.

Toddlers, children and teens suffering from chronic constipation may also be helped by squatting and postural exercises that help strengthen their pelvic muscles. Recent research shows that by encouraging a proper squatting position, functional constipation can be resolved in a vast majority of cases.30

Regular exercise can also help reduce constipation.31 The physical movement helps increase the motility in your digestive tract and can stimulate the urge to have a bowel movement. Also, when you do feel the urge, don't wait. The longer the stool sits in your colon, the more water is removed and the more difficult it is to pass.

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