Real talk: Due to stress, travel, or too much cheese pizza, we’re not always regular. And for reasons that are poorly understood, women are at higher risk — at nearly double the prevalence among men, close to one in five ladies under 50 suffer from digestion issues such as chronic constipation. When you need a bit of digestion relief, popping pills can create an unpleasant yo-yo effect, swinging you from one extreme to the other. For a more balanced result, bathroom-wise, a natural remedy may offer a better solution. To deal with occasional irregularity, if you’d rather not reach for meds, try one of these natural alternatives.
1. Meditation: Since digestive motility and emotions are inextricably linked, the first and best line of defense for sluggish digestion may be in our brains, not our guts. You’ve likely experienced this phenomenon at some point: Even when maintaining your usual healthy lifestyle with its high-fiber diet and regular exercise, stressful life situations can hold your digestive tract hostage. A work deadline looms or in-laws visit for the weekend, and your bowels hit the brakes.
“Meditation, not medication” has become a mantra of the alternative therapy approach to health. Meditating initiates the body’s relaxation response, which can release physical and mental tension, leading to digestive relief. In fact, in a randomized trial, researchers found that practicing mindfulness meditation correlated with reduced symptoms of IBS. Check YouTube for guided meditations specifically for constipation. And don’t wait until the situation gets dire — daily meditation appears to yield the best results.
2. Yoga: Like meditation, yoga taps into the mind-body connection that often causes digestion to slow. In addition to reducing stress, regular yoga practice provides a healthy dose of the physical activity that’s key to stimulating movement in the bowels. One study found that teenagers who suffered from IBS had fewer symptoms and improved quality of life after just four weeks of daily yoga sessions.
While a basic practice is always a healthy habit, some yoga poses work more effectively than others to get things moving smoothly (and we’re not just talking energy flow). Standing forward bend (legs straight, chest drawn toward the thighs, hands on the floor) compresses the abdomen to speed intestinal transit. Yoga squat (feet on the floor, knees bent with bum toward the floor, hands pressed together) has a similar effect. And “wind-relieving pose” (lying on your back with knees drawn up to the chest) lives up to its eyebrow-raising name by eliminating gas and moving waste down the colon. (You may want to make sure you know the closest restroom to your class.)
3. Acupressure: Another member of the complementary medicine family, acupressure has ancient roots as a treatment for slow digestion. It only makes sense that a problem like constipation could benefit from this touch therapy intended to “unravel blockages.” Though research has yet to thoroughly explain the reasons behind acupressure’s effectiveness, many people find it a helpful remedy.
Acupressure points for digestive relief include the divot at the internal base of the wrist, the outer crease of the elbow, and even (if you can get past the weirdness of it) the perineum. If you’re really determined to get relief, you’ll try anything, right? A study involving 100 adults showed that perineal acupressure significantly improved bowel function in people with chronic constipation.
4. Coffee: Coffee doesn’t just stimulate your nerves: It can also stimulate your colon (as you may have noticed after your morning joe — about 30 percent of people report coffee has a laxative effect). Scientists are still researching exactly how coffee manages this feat. Is it the caffeine? The acidity? Regardless of the mechanism, one study reported that coffee’s effects on the colon were comparable to a thousand-calorie meal. If you decide to self-treat with America’s favorite morning beverage, just be aware that more doesn’t necessarily mean better. Overdoing it with coffee may only make you jittery and send you to the bathroom with (only) a full bladder. Start with one cup to see if you get results.
5. Senna Leaf: Quick biology lesson: Dietary fiber is just the part of a plant the body can’t digest. Senna leaf, a natural remedy available at most drugstores in capsule or tea form, works in the same way as fiber. As this herb travels through the digestive tract, it actually causes irritation within the walls of the colon, attracting fluid and causing the bowels to contract (hence its effectiveness in treating the occasional GI backup).
The primary drawback? It’s not an instant fix. Ingesting senna leaf in a pill or tea generally produces results over six to 12 hours. Still, what senna lacks in immediacy, it makes up in strength. Gastroenterologists often use this nonprescription laxative to help patients “evacuate” before bowel surgery. So be careful with this small-but-mighty remedy — and be advised that it’s not intended for long-term use.
6. Magnesium: You might think of magnesium as just another line item listed on the side of a cereal box, but this dietary mineral serves many important purposes. In addition to its other functions in the body (like helping muscles contract and maintaining healthy bones), magnesium attracts fluid to the digestive tract, helping its contents move smoothly. Taken as a supplement in the form of magnesium citrate or magnesium sulfate, it typically gets the job done in a matter of hours. Talk to your doctor about appropriate dosage.
And, as always, consult your medical professional before beginning any treatment for constipation.