In This Article
Trouble eliminating affects as many as 27% of the population. Common solutions include more exercise, eating more fiber and vegetables, and drinking more water. When these fail to support regular and complete bowel function, laxatives are often prescribed.
Most laxatives work by irritating the intestinal wall, which results in contraction, peristalsis, and a bowel movement—but not without a consequence. Bowel irritation with laxatives may stimulate a better bowel movement, but over time they can desensitize the intestinal wall, resulting in the need for more aggressive bowel stimulation and dependency on laxatives. Other laxatives like magnesium citrate work by pulling water out of the intestinal wall to support a healthier bowel movement. Long-term use of this has been shown to pull excess water and minerals off the wall, both dehydrating and demineralizing the intestines.
Before you attempt laxative therapy, let’s try the Ayurvedic approach. Here are my top ten Ayurvedic fixes for occasional constipation.
1. Don’t Suppress Your Natural Urges
According to Ayurveda, one causative factor listed next to almost every health condition is the suppression of natural urges. Have you ever found yourself holding back the urge to move your bowels? Do you choose not to poo in public toilets, at your office, or at your school lavatory?
We are the only mammal that suppresses natural urges. A lifetime of repressing the urge to evacuate can cause what Ayurveda calls upward-moving digestion or udvarta. Chronic suppression of this natural urge to eliminate can make the urge disappear.
Ideally, the urge to have a bowel movement should happen first thing in the morning within one hour of waking up. Challenge yourself to use a public or office restroom and let us know if you lived through the experience. I get it—it is hard, office toilets can be embarrassing, and clean public toilets are generally hard to find. But addressing this type of psychosocial constipation must start with listening to your body’s natural urge to eliminate it.
2. Get Rid of Your Stress
The large intestine is the seat of vata (mind) and thus the seat of the nervous system. Basically, we process our stress through the gut. Studies show that 95% of the serotonin produced in the body, along with other neurotransmitters, are made and stored in the large intestine. Humans process stress through the large intestines where the gut microbiome carries stress responses to the brain. The brain responds to these signals behaviorally and emotionally, as described in the growing field of psychobiotics. Studies have linked stress and stressful events to a higher rate of constipation. In a research review where mindfulness meditation was evaluated for its effect on digestive issues, 6 out of the 7 studies they looked at demonstrated a significant improvement in intestinal imbalance issues.
The regular practice of yoga, breathing, and meditation are tools that can mediate one of the most common causes of intestinal distress: stress.
3. Balancing Vata in the Intestines with Diet
According to Ayurveda, the primary cause of occasional constipation is a vata (air) imbalance linked to excessive dryness in the gut. When we’re under excessive stress, dryness can ensue, making complete and regular bowel function more difficult.
Excessive stress can cause the downward-moving aspect of vata—apana vata—to become aggravated, resulting in intestinal dryness and poor elimination. Balancing vata with diet is an important first step for treating occasional constipation. A diet of dry, cold, raw, or highly processed/refined foods may contribute to a vata imbalance. To balance vata: eat warm, fall-winter harvested, moist, oily, well-cooked, and somewhat heavier foods that trend towards sweet, sour, or salty.
See also Vata (Fall and Winter) Grocery List
4. Balance Intestinal Vata with Herbs, Not Laxatives
Perhaps the most well-known herb for occasional constipation in Ayurveda is an herbal blend called Triphala. The first step in supporting healthy elimination is to tone the bowel muscles of the intestine and gut wall. Triphala (also spelled Trifala) consists of three fruits that safely and effectively support occasional constipation:
- Haritaki tones the muscular wall of the gut.
- Amalaki supports the health of the intestinal skin and villi.
- Bibhitaki boosts the removal of mucus and toxins from the wall of the gut.
Note: Triphala is not an intestinally irritating laxative like senna, cascara sagrada, and others which can also be habit-forming.
The polyphenols in Triphala have been studied to elicit a positive effect on the human microbiome. Research shows Triphala promotes the healthy proliferation of beneficial Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus while inhibiting the growth of undesirable gut microorganisms. These beneficial bacteria are linked to more regular and complete bowel movements.
5. Boost Liver Bile to Regulate Bowel Function
According to Western medicine, when elimination is sluggish or infrequent, the bile that is trapped in the intestines can be reabsorbed back into the liver through what is called the enteric cycle. Bile is a substance produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. When we eat fat, this bile is secreted into the intestinal tract to help our body digest that fat. Here, it scrubs the intestinal villi of toxins. The dietary fiber then attaches to the bile and escorts it to the toilet. If we don’t eat enough dietary fiber, as much as 93% of the bile (with the toxins in tow!) can be reabsorbed back into the liver.
Poor bile flow is a common cause of sluggish elimination. Herbs and foods that boost bile flow are called cholagogues. Cholagogue-rich foods support healthy gallbladder function and bile flow. The main cholagogues are:
- Bitter Greens
At LifeSpa, we have a cholagogue formula called Beet Cleanse that combines beets, fenugreek, cinnamon, and shilajit to support the optimal bile flow that is required for healthy bowel function.
6. Get the Right Kind of Fiber
There are two basic kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. During the spring and summer months, the fiber that is harvested is predominately insoluble, which is commonly called roughage. It consists of plant-based fiber or cellulose that does not break down in the water, staying raw, rough, and fibrous as it passes through the digestive tract. Lacking this kind of fiber can cause sluggish elimination, and it is suggested that we all eat 6 servings of fruits and veggies each day to keep up
The fall-harvested fiber that comes from grains, legumes, and seeds is called soluble fiber. Soluble fibers break down and become slimy (or demulcent) with water and in the digestive tract. Oats, chia, and flax seeds become extremely viscous when soaked in water. According to Ayurveda, winter is a cold, dry season called vata season. The fall harvest of seeds and grains provides a natural soluble fiber that lubricates the intestinal tract throughout winter, supporting healthy and easy-moving bowel function. This soluble fiber also attaches to the bile and escorts the bile, its attached toxins, and the fecal matter to the toilet.
At LifeSpa, I formulated a product called Elim 1 which is a combination of Triphala with slippery elm and licorice (which are both soluble fibers). To activate these soluble fibers, we draw water to the capsule with a micro-dose of psyllium husk—an old Ayurvedic formulation trick. This combination is designed to restore function and not create a dependency as most laxatives can.
7. Support Your Gut with Colonizing Probiotics that Increase Transit Time
While fiber plays an important role, one study found that a specific strain of yogurt-based probiotic called Bifidobacterium lactis HN019 decreases the time from eating to elimination by a whopping 57 percent.
In this triple-blind study, 100 subjects with various digestive concerns were randomized to consume a placebo or a low or high dose of the colonizing strain of Bifidobacterium lactis called HN019 for 14 days. This is the same strain in LifeSpa’s Flora Restore and Flora Restore MAX probiotics.
Researchers measured the subjects ‘gut transit time’, which is the time from ingestion to elimination. The researchers saw a 31% decrease in transit time in the low-dose HN019 probiotic group (similar to the dosage in LifeSpa Flora Restore) and a 57% decrease in transit time in the high-dose HN019 group (similar to the dosage in LifeSpa’s Flora Restore Max).
In addition to increased transit times, the study also saw a 52% reduction in abdominal discomfort, a 48% reduction in queasiness, and 42% of patients self-reporting healthier elimination. These are promising results!
8. Exercise is Key! Move After Each Meal
Exercise is one of the simplest cures for lack of bowel movement. 80% of Americans do not exercise regularly. This sedentary lifestyle is one of the risk factors leading to sluggish elimination. From the Ayurvedic perspective, deep nasal breathing during a brisk walk activates the diaphragm, which plays a major role in digestive health.
According to Ayurveda, taking a walk after each meal, known as shatapavali, is an important habit for the health of your cardiovascular system and your intestines. After a meal, a walk churns the food, gently massages the intestinal tract, and kick-starts the upper and lower digestion. Ultimately, the walk will increase peristalsis—the intestinal contractions needed to have a bowel movement.
9. Hydrate! Mild Dehydration is Linked to Sluggish Bowel Function
Studies have shown there is a link between insufficient water intake and occasional constipation. Often, the signal to drink water is masked with a desire to eat. Clinical studies have shown that people confuse thirst for hunger up to 37% of the time. Before you grab a quick snack to satiate your appetite, try drinking an 8-to-12-ounce glass of water and wait 15 minutes. If your hunger goes away, you were thirsty and possibly dehydrated.
Studies suggest that an average adult needs about 75-100 ounces of water each day. Drinking sips of hot water along with normal room-temp water intake is a classic Ayurvedic approach to rehydration. Eating the right foods can play a role in your hydration, too. As much as 30% of the water we get is from our foods. Some of the best hydrating foods are beets, strawberries, watermelon, cabbage, celery, lettuce, apples, oranges, grapes, spinach, pears, pineapple, carrots, yogurt, and broccoli.
10. Avoid Coffee and Decaffeinate Yourself
While coffee helps most folks “go”, the benefits are often short-lived as the need for a double or triple shot soon replaces the one shot that worked just fine a year ago. While the antioxidants in coffee offer real benefits, the caffeine at high dosages is extremely astringent, drying, and vata-aggravating for the intestinal tract. This can often predispose the coffee drinker to sluggish and infrequent bowel function and irritation of the intestinal lining, increasing the risk of mild hemorrhoids. Try a Swiss Water Decaf Coffee and work towards making a caffeinated coffee a treat, rather than a ritual you crave each and every morning.