Do you know how many times a week you have a bowel movement?
When you have a bowel movement, do you look at it before you flush?
Chances are, unless you suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, colitis, chronic constipation, or some other form of intestinal disharmony, you simply flush and go.
Constipation is the most common digestive complaint in the United States. Some studies estimate that over 4 million Americans have constipation, which accounts for 2.5 million visits to the doctor each year. (1) (2) Many of us are constipated and never even know it!
Those of us who do detect that things are sluggish may drink a slimming tea, take detoxification herbs, or pop over-the-counter laxatives. These are all popular ways to manage constipation. However, these popular methods of self-care often involve harsh purgative herbs or chemicals.
Both over-the-counter laxatives and herbal laxatives can significantly deplete the body and generate a dependence. Whatever form they come in, if you use laxatives long enough, you may find that you cannot have a normal bowel movement without them.
If you want to understand constipation, you need to know about the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Sound strange? What does a brain neurotransmitter have to do with the bowels? As it turns out, a lot.
Serotonin, a brain chemical that most of us associate with happiness and relaxation, is responsible for peristalsis. Peristalsis is the wave-like motion in the intestinal tract that helps your stool along to its exit. Research has found that cells lining the gut wall actually secrete serotonin in response to the presence of waste products. (3)
About 95 percent of the serotonin in your body is found in your gut. The remaining 5 percent is found in your brain. (3)
When drug companies were looking for answers about what controls motility in an Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) patient, more and more they turned their attention to serotonin. (4)
- When someone has IBS, there is often irregularity in bowel movements.
- In other words, the person will alternate between constipation and diarrhea.
- Researchers found that too little serotonin in the gut produces constipation, while too much produces diarrhea.
This is why several drugs that were developed for the treatment of IBS initially focused on serotonin.
A chemical imbalance in the gut is not the only cause of constipation.
In fact, a chemical imbalance in the gut may be more of a symptom than a cause. And using a drug to correct that chemical imbalance could affect body elsewhere- such as in the brain. After all, about 5 percent of the body's total serotonin is located in the brain. (4)
There are other factors to consider: Such as the fact that gut bacteria also produce their own gases. Like serotonin in the gut, certain gases promote constipation while other gases promote diarrhea. This means that if you have constipation, you may have more bacteria in your gut that produce one gas or another, such as the gas methane. (4)
What all this means is resolving constipation is not just about adding more fiber to the diet!
We have all heard that dietary fiber is good for the bowels.
Bacteria, which populate both the small and large intestine, need to eat. Many of the foods that we eat also feed the bacteria in our digestive tract. This is why diet can either make or break gastrointestinal health.
Bacteria love sugar. This especially true of opportunistic bacteria that cause more harm than good in the body. Bacteria love the same sugars that we love. They also love fiber.
While fiber does not taste sweet and while we cannot digest it, fiber does contain special sugars that feed bacteria.
Tips for resolving constipation--naturally!
1. Eat a moderate amount of vegetables. This is only if you find it difficult to digest vegetables, especially raw vegetables and salads. If this sounds familiar, it may be that you are eating too much fiber!
Vegetables that give us roughage are called "high-residue" foods, meaning that they leave a lot behind to feed the bacteria in your gut. While you repair your inner ecology with the Body Ecology Diet, try lightly steaming or cooking your veggies before you eat them.
2. Eat more foods that boost serotonin in the body. The research has been done. We now know that too little serotonin in the gut is linked to sluggish bowel movements.
You can boost serotonin by eating foods that are high in tryptophan, like fermented spiralina. (5)
3. Attempt to have a bowel movement first thing in the morning. According to Chinese medicine theory, the body's energy flows through the large intestine meridian from 5 - 7 am. This is the best time to empty the bowels.
4. Make your bathroom the nicest room in the house! Just like our bathroom's role in our home, we often overlook the large intestine's role in our health.
What would happen if the garbage truck never came to empty and haul away your garbage? If this happened to every home on your block, the garbage would quickly accumulate and your neighborhood would become the perfect breeding ground for disease. The same is true in your body! Many diseases, like cancer, are said to result from a type of cellular constipation.
Not many of us think that it is worthwhile to notice when we go, how often, and what our stools actually look like. But believe it or not, our bowels are a direct reflection of our health!
1. Staats PS, Markowitz J, Schein J. Incidence of constipation associated with long-acting opioid therapy: a comparative study. South Med J. Feb 2004;97(2):129-34.
2. Martin BC, Barghout V, Cerulli A. Direct medical costs of constipation in the United States. Manag Care Interface. Dec 2006;19(12):43-9.
3. Kim, Doe-Young, and Michael Camilleri. Serotonin: a mediator of the brain-gut connection.The American journal of gastroenterology 95.10 (2000): 2698-2709.
4. Pimentel, Mark. The New IBS Solution: Bacteria--The Missing Link In Treating IBS. Van Nuys: Health Point Press, 2006.
5. Fernstrom, John D. Large neutral amino acids: dietary effects on brain neurochemistry and function. Amino acids 45.3 (2013): 419-430.