Constipation and Digestive Health

Common constipation, in addition to being uncomfortable, can be a troubling risk factor for hemorrhoids, diverticulosis and more serious intestinal problems.

Generally a mechanical problem of particulate matter moving through the digestive tract too slowly, constipation can lead to hard stools and difficult bowel movements. In most cases, constipation can be alleviated by simple lifestyle changes.

  • Exercise daily. Exercise does more than tone your heart and muscles; it also tones your intestines and is essential to regular bowel movements.
  • Utilize some type of relaxation technique daily, especially biofeedback, breathing exercises or yoga. Stress can interfere with relaxation of the whole body, including the bowels.
  • Try to establish a regular schedule and don’t ignore the urge to go. Peristalsis of the bowel – the movements that trigger a bowel movement – come and go. If you ignore the urge, you may lose the opportunity. The longer stool stays in the bowel, the harder it gets as more water is reabsorbed, and the more difficult it is to expel.
  • Do not use caffeine addictively. Coffee and other forms of caffeine work well as laxatives when used occasionally. When used addictively, however, caffeine prevents the bowels from following their own natural rhythm. The use of other stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamines, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine can also result in constipation.
  • Don’t smoke. Nicotine affects the bowel in the same manner as caffeine.
  • Avoid constipating drugs. The most common are opiates and derivatives of nightshades (atropine, scopolamine).

Nutrition and Supplements for Digestive Health

  • Drink plenty of fluids – at least 8 glasses (preferably of water) a day.
  • Eat at least 40 grams of fiber a day. A high-fiber cereal (more than 8 grams of fiber per serving) plus generous amounts of vegetables, fruits and legumes is especially important for avoiding constipation.
  • A fiber supplement may also be helpful. Choose one made from psyllium or purified hemicellulose. Make sure to drink plenty of water when you use these products.

For temporary constipation, try:

  • Magnesium – This mineral is essential for relaxation of smooth muscles, including the large intestine, and it also can have a slight laxative effect.
  • Rhubarb Root (Rheum offidnale) – This is one of the safest and least violent irritant laxatives, but it should be reserved for occasional use only.
  • Triphala – This Ayurvedic remedy for regulating the bowels is a combination of three fruits that tone the muscles in the large intestine. It should be used on a regular basis, however, and not just when temporary constipation occurs.

To learn more about other gastrointestinal issues, browse a wealth of digestive health articles and related Q&As.

Share Dr. Weil's expertise with your friends & family