There is often a tendency of thinking we will be healthier if we eat more healthy food, take supplements and herbs. While this is true, one critical foundation of good health is the elimination of toxins through the digestive tract. According to Ayurveda, this is one of the 'malas' or excretion paths which is essential for healthy digestion, agni and state of mind. When this channel is blocked, this leads to issues such as constipation, poor digestion, heartburn, weight gain, lethargy, irritability and many more concerns that can lead to disease over time. This is called 'ama' in Ayurveda.
Talking about bowel movements is not usual practice for most people, so it's common to assume things are normal when they actually aren't. In naturopathy & Ayurveda, details on elimination are very important to a good assessment of health.
A healthy bowel movement should be about 2-3 times a day, ideally first thing in the morning and should be the consistency of a ripe banana. Sluggish bowels can be caused by many factors. While hydration (drinking more water) and fibre are common advice, there is often more to it than that. If you struggle with constipation and water & fibre are not helping, it's time to delve deeper into understanding the specific imbalances happening. We will look at some of the common and not-so-common causes of constipation and Ayurvedic & naturopathic tips to help support healthy elimination.
Lack of water is a very common cause of constipation. Not only how much you drink but also when you drink is important. Starting the day with at least 1-2 glasses of (warm) water can help signal the body to eliminate, in addition to ample amounts of water between meals. Drinking water only with meals dilutes your stomach acid and can weaken digestion, so focus on drinking at least 1 hour after meals. Dryness is very common in vata type individuals and also pitta individuals where too much heat leads to dryness.
Lack of healthy oils is also a very common cause of constipation, especially in vata types. Adequate lubrication of the digestive tract is essential for healthy bowel movements. Healthy oils such as olive oil, butter/ghee, avocado oil, coconut oil, etc. can be added to soups, salads or on your food. A simple Ayurvedic drink to help with bowel movements is a glass of warm milk (dairy or non-dairy) with 1 tsp of ghee before bed to help lubricate the digestive tract.
Fibre is critical for bowel movements and helps keep things moving. A diet rich in vegetables & fruits will have adequate fibre, but nowadays many people are eating refined foods which lack fibre. Try increasing your vegetables to half of the portion on your plate, including a variety of leafy green veggies. Chia seeds, flax seeds and psyllium can be beneficial for some people. Keep in mind, Kapha individuals often respond well to increasing fibre. For vata individuals, increasing the fibre without enough water & oils in the diet can increase dryness and worsen constipation in some cases. Always check with your ND for an assessment to find the right treatment for you.
3. Nervous system
The digestive tract is well integrated with the nervous system. For example, have you noticed you will eat and digest much better when you are happy and at ease versus when you are on the go or anxious? The digestive system works best in parasympathetic mode (when you are relaxed). When the nervous system is in fight-or-flight mode, the body prioritizes resources to other parts of the body, away from the digestive system.
I can't emphasize how important it is to create the right kind of environment to eat on a daily basis. Avoid walking, standing, driving while eating and also avoid TV and other distractions. Create a committed space at the dinner table which is screen free and avoid heavy discussions at mealtimes. If this is challenging for you, try playing some enjoyable music or explore simple meditation or mindfulness techniques to help you settle before you start eating. If you struggle with anxiety, ongoing stress and other imbalances, then there are many other ways your ND can support you with herbs, relaxation techniques and other treatments to support your nervous & digestive systems.
4. Gut bacteria
If you struggle with constipation in addition to gas, bloating and other digestive concerns, it is likely there is an imbalance in your gut bacteria. This can be caused by chronic antibiotic use, candida, parasitic infections or low stomach acid to name a few. Many individuals in this case respond to a good quality probiotic that supports gut bacteria, In some cases, antimicrobial herbs are first needed as a cleanse to reset the gut bacteria in addition to probiotics. Each individual is different, so a customized approach is best to resolve constipation in the long term.
5. Food sensitivities
Many individuals have food sensitivities (different from allergies) that can lead to constipation or loose stools and long term inflammation. Wheat can be a trigger for some people as can soy, dairy, eggs, nuts or other foods. It is sometimes difficult to establish a clear connection between a specific food and a digestive reaction because food sensitivities are often delayed - it can show up a few days later. There are food sensitivity tests that you can do through your ND that test a variety of foods. So if you struggle with constipation and have tried many of the suggestions above, speak with your ND on what options are available. Often once food sensitivities are identified and removed from the diet, digestion and energy improve significantly.
Constipation is common but not something you should ignore for long. There are many natural laxatives that can be used in the interim to help bring relief while identifying and treating the root cause. If you have concerns regarding elimination or if you simply want to support a healthy digestive system, speak with your naturopathic doctor. There are many safe ways to get your bowels in better shape without relying on OTC laxatives. Get a head start on cleaning up your digestive system and feel better!