Natural approach to constipation


A natural approach to constipation

In this series of articles, we take a look at what you can do or take to prevent, alleviate or cure common ailments naturally. As many complementary and alternative medicine therapies haven't undergone rigorous testing, we base the recommendations here on the amount of evidence that is currently available (indicated with asterisks):

Natural Steps for Constipation (check the Evidence rating)
*** Good Evidence of a health benefit.
** Some Evidence of a health benefit.
* Traditionally used with only anecdotal evidence.

Improve your lifestyle ***

  • Stress management
  • Improve Nutrition with Fibre Foods
  • Exercise

Avoid foods that cause constipation:

  • Refined and processed foods.
  • Dairy products.
  • Alcohol.

These nutrients have been shown to help Constipation:

  • Vitamin C *
  • Vitamin B's *
  • Magnesium *

The following herbs are normally used for Constipation:

  • liquorice *
  • ginger *
  • dandelion root *
  • yellow dock root *

Homeopathics remedies to help Constipation:

  • Nux Vomica *
  • Aesculus hippocastanum *
  • Bryonia *
  • Chelidonium *
  • Plumbum *
  • Opium *
  • Alumina *

Alternative/Complementary Therapy
The most commonly used Complementary Approaches to Constipation are:

  • Herbal Medicine **
  • Naturopathic Medicine **

Please Note: This natural medicine guide does not replace the assessment and advice of your doctor.

Consultation with your health professional is extremely important if you are experiencing persistent or severe symptoms of Constipation.

"Constipation is mostly due to poor lifestyle habits" according to natural health expert, Dr Arien Van der Merwe, and occurs when stools become hardened and difficult to pass. Some people may be concerned about the frequency of their bowel movements because they have been taught that healthy people should have a bowel movement every day. This is not true. People usually pass stools from three times a day to three times a week. If your stools are soft and pass easily, you are not constipated.

The longer a bowel movement is resisted, the larger and harder the stool becomes, which may cause pain when it is passed.

Other causes include a diet that includes too little fibre and/or too little water, voluntary delay of bowel movements (common in children), a disrupted routine (brought on by travel for example), lack of exercise, and medication. Constipation may also be a symptom of other diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and diseases of the metabolism, endocrine system and the nervous system.

Natural remedies

What to do

1. Diet
According to natural health guru, Dr Arien van der Merwe, a natural approach to constipation would include the regular intake of fibre-rich food. Good examples of foods that would help to alleviate constipation, include:

  • Breakfast: All Bran flakes, digestive bran, oats and dried fruit (soaked overnight in hot water);
  • Lunch: whole grain bread, fruit and vegetables;
  • Supper: barley, beans and vegetables in a soup.

2. Exercise
Dr Van der Merwe suggests, "Regular exercise such as walking and specific yoga positions help to massage the colon to assist in bowel movement."

3. Cultivate healthy habits
Set aside relaxed times for having bowel movements. As urges usually occur after mealtimes, it may help to ask a constipated child to sit on the toilet after meals, especially breakfast. It may help to make this a daily routine.

Defecate when you feel the urge. When a stool needs to pass, your bowel sends you signals. If you ignore these signals, the urge will go away and the faeces will eventually become dry and difficult to pass.

A firm footing, perhaps with the aid of a footstool, helps children position themselves properly on the toilet.

4. Stress management techniques
People react to stress in different ways, some break out in eczema while others get migraines. For some people, constipation is a reaction to stress. If you feel like you are under constant pressure, Dr Van der Merwe recommends that you learn some basic "daily stress management techniques".

5. Warm bath
If your child has rectal pain because she is unable to have a bowel movement, you can try adding 60 ml of baking soda to a warm bath. The baking soda and the warmth may help relax the anal sphincter (muscular valves that normally keep the stool inside the rectum) and thus help pass the stool.

What to take

1. Ayurvedic medicine
Dr Van der Merwe recommends the following Ayurvedic recipe (and grandma's!) that works well for severe constipation: 2 teaspoons of castor oil before bedtime in a quarter of a glass of hot water containing a pinch of ginger and a few drops of lemon juice (it also takes away the oily taste). Drink this for one or two evenings and then again after a week. You should not do this more than once a month.

2. Bulking agents
Bulking agents such as bran and psyllium are not laxatives, but work by increasing the volume of stool and making it easier to pass. These products are safe to use and regular use renders them more effective. Always drink plenty of water when taking bulking agents.

3. Herbal help
Consult your doctor or a professional herbal practitioner before using any of the herbs mentioned in the following section, especially if you are pregnant, suffer from a chronic disease or are on other medication. Also read the section on herb safety.

Make a cup of herbal tea, using liquorice, ginger, dandelion root and yellow dock root. Drink this mixture three times a day. Or you can take three garlic tablets every night for a week to rebalance intestinal flora.

4. Homeopathic help
The following homeopathic remedies were recommended by qualified homeopath, Dr Debbie Smith. Match your specific condition to the remedy suggested:

Nux Vomica – for if you are passing hard round balls like sheep dung. Patient is impatient and gets irritable easily.

Aesculus hippocastanum – for severe lower back pain. Stools are hard, dry and difficult.

Bryonia – stools are hard, dark and dry as if burnt they are also bulky. The patient has a severe headache that feels as if his/her head is going to burst. They also have a thirst for large quantities of water.

Chelidonium – for constipation associated with liver disorders. You may experience right upper quadrant pain radiating to, or under the right shoulder blade.

Plumbum - Use if your stools have to be removed mechanically. For stubborn constipation.

Opium – for chronic constipation, during which stools protrude and recede.

Alumina – for inactivity of the rectum. Stools are clay-like and adhere to the anus. Patients often have no desire to pass a stool.

Caution: If you have a chronic illness or routinely take prescribed or over-the-counter (OTC) medication, or you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor, or pharmacist before taking any new medications.

Do not stop taking any prescription medications without the guidance and consultation with your doctor.

This article was contributed to by natural health expert Dr Arien van der Merwe (MBChB). You can order her following books, published by Tafelberg, in English and Afrikaans online at
Health & Happiness
Geluk & Gesondheid
Herbal Remedies
Kruie met Geneeskrag

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