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Do you have an aversion to using public toilets? Do you hold it in instead of going to the toilet when you feel the urge?
Probably the most important imbalance commonly found in our culture is occasional constipation. Many folks report healthy elimination when they are, in fact, constipated. According to the classic Ayurvedic definition, occasional constipation occurs when elimination does not take place naturally, first thing in the morning, within the first hour of getting out of bed. The stool should be regular, fully-formed, and complete without the use of dietary supplements. Upon flushing, the stool should break apart. One to three bowel movements each day (depending on the body type) is considered normal. (To learn more about evaluating your stool – see my my article, “The Perfect Poop.”)
Most people develop occasional constipation after years of imbalanced digestion, lifestyle, or diet. But surprisingly, one of the most common causal factors behind occasional constipation is the suppression of natural urges, resulting in the subsequent disappearance of the normal eliminative urges. For example, first thing in the morning, typically at or before dawn, there should be a natural urge to eliminate. Our pets, for example, are let out first thing in the morning as an understood respect for this natural urge.
We often find this natural urge inappropriate or inconvenient at certain times and force ourselves to suppress it. Holding in a bowel movement may be one of the cardinal sins that can create long-term digestive, mental, emotional, and eliminative issues, according to Ayurveda. Next time you have an urge for a bowel movement, challenge yourself to use a public restroom and let us know if you lived through the experience. Public toilets can be gross, but clean public toilets are generally not hard to find. Go for it!
If we continue to suppress these natural urges, the habitual suppression can lead to a kind of psychosocial form of occasional constipation, whereby elimination may be regular, but not complete. If elimination does not naturally conform to the Ayurvedic definition of “normal,” then the elimination cannot be complete and the colon is, therefore, considered occasionally constipated.
Diet can also be a leading factor in intermittent constipation. First and foremost, lack of proper water consumption. Americans drink soft drinks, juices, and other beverages, which may quench the thirst, but do not properly nourish and lubricate the intestinal tract. Without enough water in the diet, ama, or toxins, will accumulate in the colon, creating a toxicity that can be absorbed into the blood via the enteric cycle. This lack of water will also allow toxins to dry out and constipate the colon. This dryness encourages toxins to adhere to the intestinal wall, leading to further constipation and malabsorption.
The low-fiber American diet is typically very mucus-forming and difficult to digest; both of these factors can slow down elimination. Stimulants such as tea and coffee may encourage peristalsis and move your bowels, presenting the illusion of better elimination– when, in fact, they progressively dry out the digestive tract, leaving the colon unable to properly eliminate. Veggies and beans pack the most bowel-regulating fiber in the diet, and should be staples in your diet.
Eating seasonally naturally balances the mucus membranes of the intestinal tract and supports healthy elimination and microbiology year-round. Warm, higher-fat winter foods lubricate in the dry, cold winter. Dry and astringent spring foods antidote the tendency for excess mucus in the spring, and the cooling fruits and veggies of summer keep the intestinal skin from overheating in the summer. Sign up for our FREE Monthly Seasonal Eating Guide as part of our 3-Season Diet Challenge!
Exercise is one of the simplest cures for lack of bowel movement. 80% of Americans do not exercise regularly. (1) This sedentary lifestyle can be a primary factor in the etiology of constipation. From the Ayurvedic perspective, exercise is primarily an activity to pump life force, or prana, into every cell of the body. Deep nasal breathing during a brisk walk will provide the desired benefits and will soothe the nervous system while energizing the body. (2-5)
Occasional Vata Constipation
In Ayurveda, elimination is controlled by vata, the principle that governs movement in the body. This particular aspect of vata (or sub-dosha) I am referring to is called apana vata. This is one of the five pranas or energies in the body that control normal function. Apana vata controls the vital force moving into the pelvis, controlling elimination and reproduction. Typically, when apana vata gets out of balance, it will first become dry. This dryness can cause classic vata-based constipation from time to time, where the colon is too dry and the stool can become hard and impacted. Treatment for this condition will be focused in removing the dryness by reestablishing the naturally moist and unctuous environment of the colon with demulcent and bowel-toning herbs and tonics.
Occasional Pitta Constipation
The next general form of intermittent constipation is caused by excess pitta, or too much heat. An over-abundance of heat in the colon can also dry out the colon, aggravating apana vata and leading to occasional constipation, as we saw in the vata example. The toxins that build up in the colon can be re-absorbed in the liver, where additional heat can build up. This can compromise bile flow from the liver and gallbladder into the small intestine. Bile from the liver is in charge of regulating the stool – no bile, no poop. The result is a pitta-caused occasional constipation. Treatments for the pitta-based intermittent constipation will cool and lubricate the colon while increasing liver function and bile flow.
Occasional Kapha Constipation
When there is excess vata or dryness in the colon, the body will defend itself by producing more colonic mucus to combat the dryness. When this happens in excess, the colon can get clogged with mucus and cause a kapha-based occasional constipation. When this imbalance is combined with a mucus-forming diet, this condition can become chronic, or even become loose. Treatment for kapha-based occasional constipation will be geared towards removing the mucus with drying, astringent, and pungent herbs – the exact opposite effect of the vata-based version.
Why Laxatives, Colonics, and Irrigating Enemas Are Not Helpful
How the occasional constipation will manifest, whether it be vata-, pitta- or kapha-based, will have a lot to do with the individual’s body type, the season, the geographical location, and of course, the specific imbalances of the individual.
The recommendations for these three more common types of occasional constipation will vary from one individual to another. Laxatives are often times recommended across the board, leaving the skin of the colon clean, but somewhat irritated and aggravated. This kind of aggressive therapy, when overused, can deplete the downward-moving apana vata. If not corrected, the vata imbalance can impact neurological and mental functions. When this happens, occasional constipation can manifest into bouts of occasional back pain, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, worry, mood and sleep issues.
Recommendations: Occasional Vata Constipation
Avoid cold and dry foods. Eat heavier, warm foods, emphasizing more oily foods like nuts, oils, and cooked grains. Favor: sweet, sour and salty foods. Reduce: bitter, pungent and astringent foods. Eat off the LifeSpa Winter (vata) grocery List.
Spices and Herbs:
- Licorice and slippery elm tea provide a lubricating and downward-balancing effect. (See Slippery Elm Prebiotic Formula)
- Ghee with warm milk before bed. (See Ojas Nightly Tonic)
- The juice of raisins and prunes soaked in water overnight will also provide both a mild eliminative and unctuous effect.
- 2 capsules (or 1 teaspoon) of Triphala or Elim I (with slippery elm and licorice) taken three times per day is beneficial for vata-type constipation.
- Ginger, cumin, cardamom, cumin and coriander with or before meals. (See Gentle Digest)
- Stay hydrated: 6-8 glasses of room temperature water per day.
- 1 tsp. of ghee, coconut oil, or olive oil with each meal.
Recommendations: Occasional Pitta Constipation
Favor foods that are slightly oily and cooked, and avoid hot-spicy and pungent foods. Favor: sweet, astringent and bitter foods. Reduce: pungent, sour and salty foods. Eat off the LifeSpa Summer (pitta) Grocery List.
- 1-2 teaspoons aloe vera gel, or 1-2 capsules of Neem 3 times per day.
- Take 2 capsules of Triphala or Elim I along with 1 tsp of ghee 3 times per day.
- Licorice, fennel, and coriander tea, 3 times per day.
- Take one beet (cooked or raw) a day for 1 month with meals. (See Beet Cleanse)
- Eat 50% of the diet as leafy greens to cool pitta.
Recommendations: Occasional Kapha Constipation
Avoid mucus-producing foods including cheese, sugar, yogurt, bread, and pastries. These foods should be particularly avoided at night. Foods rich in hot and more pungent spices are good, such as ginger, black pepper, and cayenne. Favor: pungent, bitter and astringent foods. Reduce: sweet, sour and salty foods. Eat off the LifeSpa Spring (kapha) Grocery List.