Digestion 101: Constipation and Diarrhea


Bowel function isn’t something we like to discuss, but that may be the exact reason why so many people are living with constipation or diarrhea every day. Simply labeling these issues as "normal" or Irritable Bowel Syndrome is simply brushing it under the carpet. Instead, face up to why your body has become irregular and do something about it! Constipation is the situation where the food that should normally be moving through the digestive process and the intestinal tract, is sluggish, causing you to have fewer and less complete bowel movements. First, you have to know what normal is. You should be going to the bathroom 15-30 minutes after a meal, and roughly twice a day if you are a three meal-a-day person. Can’t believe it? Just watch your dog. Constipation can be caused by a number of things: too little water present, weak muscular action, spasmodic muscles, valve problems, lack of lubrication, food is too bulky or fibrous, food is too watery, issues about going to the bathroom.

Water is essential for digestion. If your body tissues are dehydrated because you drink too little water, and offset the little water you drink with coffee, tea and other dehydrating beverages, you have cement trying to move through your system. Increasing water intake and adding magnesium and disodium phosphate will really help restore normalized hydration in the intestinal tract.

The walls of the intestinal tract are muscular and this is what propels food along the twists and turns of the digestive tract. These muscles are just like the muscles anywhere else. They require exercise to work and healthy nerves to stimulate muscular contraction. Skullcap and St. John’s Wort are nervine tonics to help tonify the nervous system. If you have been eating a diet of refined foods and lacking fiber, these muscles have become flaccid and atrophied. They need exercise. So add fiber... I like a natural fiber such as apple pectin, barley bran or even oats, and I avoid psyllium because it has quite a bit of gluten and is very bloating in many women. These fibers are great for providing resistance exercise for the gut. Also, if you have been subsisting on a diet of watery foods, particularly refined flours, you have allowed a paste to coat the inside of your intestinal tract, which is now hardened into a resistant plaque. This glues down the muscles and prevents them from being able to contract, much like coating a balloon with flour and water (paste!).

Muscles can also spasm, as a result of emotional issues such as stress or fear and also as a result of nerve problems. And spasming of your intestinal muscles can reflect into your muscles of movement. There have been numerous times when low back pain has simply been a symptom of bowel issues. Relaxing the muscles is crucial to food being able to move through the tract on a regular basis and also without pain. I like to use herbal anti-spasmodics such as Cramp Bark and Corydalis. Even Magnesium has an anti-spasmodic quality because it offsets calcium, which can cause over-contraction of muscles. For this reason, coffee is off the list for someone who has a spasmodic digestive system because caffeine causes spontaneous releases of calcium stores, making muscles in constant turmoil. You may also want to handle your digestive issues with relaxational formulas to calm an overemotional system. Skullcap, Valerian, Ashwaganda and California Poppy can be great for emotional digestion.

There are numerous valves throughout the digestive system, at the top and bottom of the stomach and at the juncture between the small and large intestines, not mention the valves in the rectum. Spanish Black Radish is the major formula I use for valves that get stuck and prevent food from moving through the tract. This is especially the case if you feel pain or cramping in the came section of the digestive tract, particularly at the same time after each meal.

Lubrication in the intestinal tract is largely the function of the bile from the gall bladder. Treating the gall bladder is often the first order of business, especially if gas and bloating are present on a regular basis. However, there are some wonderful lubricants for the digestive tract as well. Formulas such as Standard Process Fen Cho which is a combination of fenugreek seed and choline, Aloe Vera and Marshmallow Root are all aids to lubrication. And don’t forget the addition of oils into the diet, which is the natural way to lubricate the digestive tract.

If the food moving through the tract is too bulky or fibrous, then it will tend to block the twists and turns of the tract, and have trouble moving through valves. This can cause valves to actually weaken over time, leading to diarrhea instead of constipation (particularly true of IBS). Bulky foods are usually due to poor chewing (like the people who bolt their food down whole) or poor chemical digestion. Lack of digestive enzymes or sufficient stomach acid are common reasons for constipation issues. Chewing is the first order of business. Taking the time to chew food well and allow the digestive enzymes in the mouth a chance to work on the food before tossing it down. The parotid glands have a role in this, and if you have TMJ, then you will also have problems with the parotid glands. Massaging the area behind the jaw and under the ears can help a lot, even with the addition of heat. There are nutritional formulas just for the parotid glands as well. Adding a comprehensive digestive enzyme formula can make a remarkable difference. Also increasing your natural flora with yogurt cultures or acidophilus/bifidus can also enhance digestive action.

If the food is too watery, either because you are drinking large amounts of water during eating (especially if the food is too spicy) or the food that you are eating has no substance or fiber to it, you won’t be providing resistance for the muscles of the intestinal tract to have something to push against. Food will languish in a corner because there is nothing for the muscles to push along the tract. This food will then putrify and become a plaqued film along the inside of the tract, reducing muscular activity even further. Intensive fiber treatments for this situation is the best approach, combined with more conscious food choices to include fibrous foods daily.

Finally, many of us have issues about going to the bathroom. Not just taking the time to go when our body tells us to, but also allowing ourselves to go to the bathroom when we are not in our comfort zone at home. For instance, many women don’t like using public restrooms or going to the bathroom when someone can hear them. Many men don’t want to bother taking the time to go to the bathroom, or subject themselves to strenuous sporting periods when they can’t go. In order to combat chronic constipation, you have to allow yourself to go to the bathroom when you need to go. After a long time of denying that basic urge to go, you will have to retrain your system to go. We recommend that our patients go into the bathroom 15 minutes after every meal and sit on the toilet, whether they have to go or not. That sends a subliminal message as to when your body should be going to the bathroom naturally.

Diarrhea is the exact opposite of constipation. It is when your natural muscular motion, called peristalsis, is too fast, or food is moving too quickly through the system to be properly digested. This will cause lack of nutrition as well as dehydration from lack of essential electrolytes. Diarrhea is most often caused by one of three things: emotional stress, irritation to the lining of the track (including bacterial issues), or as a reaction to chronic constipation. This last is the most common cause underlying a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome because of the alternating constipation and diarrhea, particularly with abdominal pain. But this is actually a natural cycle for someone who is chronically constipated.

So what to do? First, by adding fiber, you can automatically slow down the diarrhea. Then I suggest a protocol to restore normalized bacterial colonies in the gut. In the case of chronic constipation, the body will only allow this situation for a certain period of time, and then it will attempt to restore balance by flushing out the system. So if you have cyclic diarrhea every few days, this is probably the case. Finally, if there are any emotional issues, our standard suggestions of Valerian, Ashwaganda or California Poppy can do wonders for calming the nerves and the digestion.

If, however, the diarrhea is every day, then it is more likely a reaction to something that is irritating the gut or is still present in the gut, such as bacteria, fungal candidiasis or reactions to food. Eliminating the diarrhea does not address the underlying problem, so really understanding how and when it began is crucial to finding the right therapy to restore balance. Garlic and wormwood if parasites may be the issue, Pau D’Arco for candidiasis, Licorice for chronic irritation and rehmannia to reduce hyperimmune activity can all be possible answers.