Irritable bowel and constipation – fifteen tips to avoid it

Irritable bowel syndrome is one of those frustrating little phrases doctors reel off when they don’t know what is causing your stomach problems. It could mean stomach cramps, constipation, diarrhoea or all three! All very different symptoms and all very complex conditions which could point to any number of causes, from simple stress and a rich diet to many other things.

If you have eczema, allergies, asthma and food intolerance it’s likely that you have, at some time in your life, had irritable bowel to some degree. Most people will experience it at some point in their lives, but chronic, recurring and endless irritable bowel can be painful, tiring, depressing and ultimately not that great for your health and well-being.

It is often a symptom of undiagnosed coeliac disease but could just as easily point to so many other things, or not be caused by anything specific at all. Some medications can also cause constipation so it’s important to be mindful of any changes after taking a new prescription or changes in your diet.

Without going into too many details I’ve had my fair share of this most common of complaints. Whether that’s caused by eating the wrong foods, stress, gluten intolerance, poor digestive health or lack of good bacteria in my gut, it’s always unpleasant and sometimes is very hard to shift – if you get my drift!

A recent very draining episode led me to explore the natural ways to fight this condition. It rather depends which kind of irritable bowel you have; a blockage or passing loose stools. Let’s concentrate on the former here since this is the one I have most knowledge of.

Generally most people should have a bowel movement every day. Once to twice a day is quite normal. I have been very regular, up till now, so was not prepared for long term irritable bowel. Someone who does not have bowel movement for longer than two to three days is classed as consiptated.

It’s not something I’d ever thought of going to the doctors about. I have just got on with my life and worked around it, waiting for the thing to pass (no pun intended – well alright, it was too good an opportunity to ignore). Which it always did, after day or so, so nothing to worry about.

What would the doctor say anyway? Probably not much and probably send you away with nothing more than the advice to take some laxatives. Well, I was kind of pleasantly surprised after a hellish TWO WEEKS which left me feeling so sluggish and nauseous I didn’t know what to do. I was at my wits end so resorted to phoning the doctor. The doctor’s advice was actually very useful.

She explained that the nausea is quite normal if someone has been constipated for some time. Not something I’d ever experienced before. She actually suggested a natural solution in the form of senna but with clear instructions of how to take it, how many, when and for how long. Basically she suggested taking two, at night before bed, until things started to move. She then advised reducing to one senna capsule nightly, until back to normal. Plenty or water and fruit. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But I wasn’t being methodical enough with my treatment before, despite having senna capsules and having had success in the past with them, I hadn’t kept taking them, thinking they weren’t working. Let’s just say things are much happier now and on the right path back to regular normality.

Here are a few of the things that you might find help…

Fifteen tips to avoid constipation and irritable bowel

  1. Make sure you eat plenty of fibre e.g. brown rice, bran cereals, weetabix, muesli, porridge or wholemeal pasta. Your digestive system needs something to work on. If you suspect a wheat intolerance, gluten allergy, or you are coeliac, obviously some of these foods would not be a good idea.
  2. Eat your five a day of fruit and vegetables
  3. Drink plenty of water e.g. at least two litres a day
  4. Prunes or prune juice – plain and simple. Have a handful with breakfast, lunch and before bed.
  5. Digestive enzymes – these can be found at health food shops, as capsules, and taken with food can help with digestion
  6. Chew your food – there are no teeth in your stomach as my nan used to say. Make sure you really do chew up your food properly so that the job of digestion is made easier
  7. Healthy bacteria – Natural yogurt contains cultures and digestive enzymes that will really help aid digestion. If you can’t eat dairy you can buy dairy free capsules at health food shops. Ask for Acidophilus
  8. Exercise regularly – a walk, run etc. work wonders
  9. Psylium Husks
  10. Add a teaspoon of ground flax seed to your porridge or cereals in the morning
  11. Start the day, before you’ve done anything else, with a mug of hot/warm water with lemon juice. It can work wonders at stimulating the stomach and bowels into action
  12. A mug of good, strong, real filter coffee can also help. It doesn’t work for everyone but worth a try
  13. Some people find that hot spicy food really helps so add some cayenne, paprika or fresh chilli to your evening meal
  14. Peppermint tea can really help with indigestion so have a mug after eating a big meal, or before you go to bed to aid digestion
  15. Slimatee – I was recommended to try this at my local health food store (Holland & Barrett). It’s sold as a weight control and diet aid and warns that it may cause loose stools. It contains frangula bark, senna leaf, peppermint leaf, hibiscus flowers, blacktea, goldenrod herb and mate tee. Let’s just say that for me it seemed to kind of free things up somewhat. Shouldn’t be taken for longer than two weeks.

There are absolutely loads of foods that can have a natural laxative effect for some people, including: Avocado, Alcohol, Almonds, Aloe Vera, Apple Juice, Chicken Broth (canned), Chicory, Chocolate, Coconut, Coffee, Dandelion, Dates, Dried apricots, Endive, Figs, Flaxseed, Grapes, Hot Tea w/ Lemon, Licorice, Mangos, Molasses, Olives, Papayas, Parsley, Peach/Apricots, Pears, Persimmons, Pineapple, Plums, Prunes/Prune Juice, Rhubarb, Soybeans, Spicy Foods, Turnips, Walnuts, Watercress… the list is endless, and we are all different.

What works for you may not work for someone else, so learn to recognise which foods have this effect on you so you can turn to a natural remedy when the need arises.

Some people can find that senna and some other over-the-counter laxatives are quite harsh and can cause stomach cramps and pain as they begin to act. Not great if you’ve taken them before bed and you then can’t sleep. Lactulose can be much more gentle but beware, it contains lactose, as the name suggests, so is not suitable for anyone with a dairy allergy or intolerance. A word of caution, if symtoms persists for longer than two to three weeks do see your doctor.

Be aware of how your body is behaving. Keep a note, even it it’s just mental, of what foods, circumstances etc. seem to trigger your irritable bowel. Some people just have a sluggish digestive system for no good reason. Not helpful it that’s what’s happening to you but there are lots of healthy things you can do to help.

Do you suffer with constipation? How do you cope? What’s your constipation best ever tip?

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About Ruth

Ruth works freelance as a copywriter and writes the What Allergy blog to share information with people who have allergies, eczema, asthma and food intolerances. http://www.whatallergy.com was voted in the top 5 allergy blogs and Ruth also judges regularly for the FreeFrom Food Awards and FreeFrom Skincare Awards. She also won the Foods You Can People's choice Best FreeFrom blogger award 2014.

Comments

  1. As a nutritionist I often see people with IBS constipation, IBD, coeliac, diarrhoea and abdominal pains and discomfort. More often than not a comprehensive stool test with parasitology can help look at underlying imbalances. Constipation is a symptom of underlying issues that need to be addressed and while dietary changes are important one must not overlook potential underlying issues. This may also include stress and lifestyle habits. Do not overlook the importance of the gut – brain connection.

    As you have mentioned there can be many factors involved in constipation including the use of certain drugs such as codeine so in addition to supplements it is obviously important to look at eating patterns and tweak these where appropriate.

    In addition it is important to consider other elements of digestive health such as sufficient HCL, enzyme deficiency which can result in constipation. When constipation is present, waste matter stays in the colon too long, this may result in toxins being reabsorbed and putrefaction to take place. This process as well as altered microbial degradation of foods can contribute to gas, bloating and cramps.

    Constipation or altered transit time is usually due to sluggish peristalsis, medications, poor dietary choices or compromised digestive secretions, it can also be affected by genetic variations in the length of the colon and colonic receptor sensitivity, where serotonin secretions and their transporter mechanisms do not meet the genetic requirements. Low thryoid function may also be a factor

    Increase Dietary Fibre: The muscles of the walls of the small and large intestine require something to push against in order to maintain tone and proper function. This bulk is provided by fibre, a form of indigestible carbohydrate. The best sources of fibre are fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals, nuts and seeds. Wheat fibre and bran products may need to be avoided, as these can be too abrasive on the delicate gut linings and may also interfere with the absorption of minerals.

    Including ground flaxseed daily with plenty of water can help. I am known for my prune juice and flaxseed concoction – simply put 1-2 tbsp ground flax seeds (linseeds) in a small glass and cover with half a cup of pure prune juice. Leave to soak overnight, then eat with a spoon. Repeat once or twice a day and accompany with plenty of liquid / water

    Avoid caffeinated drinks which can be dehydrating. Coconut water is a great hydrator.

    I would also include foods such as figs, prunes, oat bran, potatoes with skin on, pea, papaya and pineapple, stewed apple with probiotics and saccharomyes boulardii

    Make Time for Bowel Movements: stress and our rushed lifestyles means we can forget to make time to open bowels. Eating at regular times can also help. Bowel massage, and relaxation can be useful. It may also assist to raise the feet up onto a small box so that the knees are above the height of the hips, as this has been found to aid colonic release.

    Exercise: Aerobic exercise, can help to stimulate bowel movement. – try and do something for 30 minutes of exercise daily.

    Take a Magnesium and / or vitamin C Supplement

    Magnesium relaxes the muscles in the intestines, which helps to establish a smoother rhythm of intestinal contractions. It also attracts water, which increases the amount of water in the colon and softens the stool.

    Consider also the use of buffered vitamin C which includes minerals, calcium, magnesium and potassium 1tsp 1-3 times a day works very well in promoting fluid into the colon and stimulating peristalsis.

    Most of all seek the advice of a nutritionist or gastro specialist to look for underlying issues

    • Christine, thanks for such a brilliant, information packed response. I like the flax seed and prune juice idea. Lots to take in here but am feeling much better thankfully. Ground flax seed and linseeds on my brekkie has been helping I think.

      • Great tips, both. I would automatically remove wheat and dairy, and probably gluten during a healing stage with any gut problem as I have found over the years it is incredibly difficult to get people well when they are eating those foods.

        I will be releasing a Purehealth Gut Plan very soon for people to follow so keep your eyes peeled!

        • I look forward to that Micki. I’m still struggling with this. Despite eating LOADS of fruit and stuff to help, and senna each night, if I stop taking the senna and some tea bags I’ve got which really help, I’m back to square one. Bit of a nightmare. Not something I’ve ever had much of a problem with before, not on this scale anyway. Thanks both for such great comments. The journey continues.

  2. Ken Keene says:

    Anyone ever consider the influence of exercise on IBS?

    • Yes, I think exercise is key for getting a sluggish digestion moving. Why is it then that doctors rarely, if ever, ask about diet and lifestyle when they come across patients with these symptoms? When you gut is the size of a bus and you are full of gas and bloated exercise doesn’t seem that appealing but it’s a vicious circle. You’ve gotta get the body moving to exercise the digestion system too. Good point Ken.

    • Exercise certainly helps, but there are regular occasions where I am in so much pain (with cramps) I can’t walk, let alone go running or kickboxing.

      • Oh I know, mine seems to be worse the older I get and is much much worse in the evenings, I guess when the food is beginning to get digested… touch wood, on an even keel at the moment. (well sort of)

  3. A few bits of advice, based on personal experience:
    Don’t to crazy with the fibre. Sometimes, if you’re already constipated adding lots of fibre ‘on top of everything else’ can cause blockages in the gut. To ‘unblock’ yourself; drink plenty, exercise to get things moving – a brisk walk with your arms swinging and taking deep breaths can do wonders, stretching exercises/yoga/meditation to ease stress, pain and tension, belly massage clockwise – find the knots and massage gently. Drinking a cup of strong coffee can get things moving. So can smoking a cigarette, however I’m not saying that you should start smoking on a regular basis. But it does work. To prevent constipation from happening; exercise every day, eat small healthy, fibre rich meals, avoid gassy foods such as beans, cabbage and cold, raw salads (again, based on personal experience but may be different for different people), don’t eat any artificial sugars, limit all sugars and replace with honey when you can – preferably made by bees in the area where you live as eating this can help you reduce allergies like pollen allergy and hay fever.
    Good luck!!

    • M thank you. I agree with all of the above. The things which work for me are very strong black coffee, exercise, lots of fruit and flax and seeds, lots of water, stretching and stomach massage was a fab idea. Had to use it this weekend and really alleviated the cramps. Sometimes we all forget to live by these rules and some of pay the price! Stress is so key too. Not always possible to avoid but it does get easier with experience to recognise it and try to avoid etc.

  4. It’s really important to know what you are dealing with when you have motility problems. Too many doctors hear the word “constipation” and write a script for Movicol – an osmotic laxative, which in cases of allergic gut reactions is rarely appropriate. http://thereciperesource.blogspot.co.uk/p/constipation-motility-and-movicol.html

    • A more gentle approach works better for me like linseeds with plenty of water, flax seed ground in some juice and spooned out in the morning, herbal prune and senna tablets and just eating prunes. Warm water and lemon first thing helps me too. And stress plays a huge factor.

      • Unfortunately we are dealing with EGID (allergic inflammatory bowel condition) – and currently 2 kids on Bisacodyl, Picosulphate, senna and lactulose all at once under GOSH is barely working 🙁

        • That sounds horrible Kate. There must be another way. I don’t have any answers unfortunately. I have cut out nearly all processed foods and have found that helps me so much.

  5. rogue g says:

    Yes, if you use Senna Leaves too much, they will make your constipation worse. they are meant to be used in the short term. For me, I use the Dr Max Powers 15 Days Cleanse. I DO NOT TAKE IT FOR 15 DAYS!!! I only take two pills the day i have constipation, and maybe the next day. NO MORE. And then I dont take it for a month, as you dont want you body getting used to it. A bottle lasts me about a year, and for the last year I have barely had any problems.

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