Foods most likely to prevent and cure constipation:
- Coarse Wheat bran
- Rice Bran
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Lots of Fluids
HOW FOODS CAN RELIEVE CONSTIPATION AND WHAT IS IT ANYWAY?
Diet is decidedly the “drug of choice” to cure and prevent common constipation. Our number-one digestive complaint. So, if you are one of some 30 million Americans who suffer from constipation, consult nature for the medicine that long ago was especially designed to keep you regular. Depending on harsh pharmaceuticals can be expensive, unnecessary and potentially harmful, since many laxatives worsen constipation by dulling the nerves of the bowel, so it no longer contracts normally.
Not all constipation is due to bad diet. It sometimes comes from physical causes and underlying disease, so if your constipation is chronic or is known to result from a medical problem, consult a physician before radically changing your diet. On the other hand, you may believe you are constipated when you are not. Lack of a bowel movement every day does not signify constipation. It’s normal to have a bowel movement anywhere from three times a week to three times a day, say experts. The most common signs of constipation are straining to pass feces; hard, dry stools; inability to defecate when desire; abdominal discomfort surrounding bowel movement; and infrequency – usually less than three times a week. Essentially, diet related constipation means insufficient bulk and moisture in the contents of the colon.
“And this is I know moreover, that to the human body it makes a great difference whether the bread be fine or coarse; of wheat with or without the hull.” – Hippocrates
Food works as a natural laxative in several complex ways. High-fiber foods such as bran and vegetables add bulk, mostly by absorbing and retaining water, producing softer stools that pass through the colon more quickly and gently. The fiber bulks up the stool because much of it is undigested. Fiber’s coarse particles also mechanically activate nerve reflexes in the colon wall, triggering bowel movements. Other foods such as coffee and prunes can chemically stimulate the bowel into action. You also need plenty fluids to keep feces soft.
Preventing constipation the natural way also reduces your chances of developing and exacerbating hemorrhoids, varicose veins and diverticular disease – all aggravated by constipation.
GET ON THE BRAN WAGON
If you are concern about constipation, the best way to cure is to eat more of nature’s magic medicine – roughage. That mainly means more whole-wheat bread and whole grains, especially cereal bran, the king of laxatives. Nothing matches bran’s purgative stool-bulking capabilities. A little daily bran could restore normal bowel movements in, conservatively, 60 percent of those who suffer from common constipation, says British authority Nicolas W. Read, M.D., director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University Sheffield. Unquestionably, much constipations come from a deficiency of high-fiber foods. Dr. Denis Burkitt notes that our ancestors ate about a pound and a quarter of whole grain, high-fiber bread a day. We eat only one-fifth as much – a mere quarter of a pound and most of it made from highly refined white flour that is fiber-depleted.
Natural laxatives like bran, which bulk up the stool instead of simply stimulating the bowel nerves as many over the counter drugs do, are safer and gentler. “Bran is the safest, cheapest and most physiological method of treating and preventing constipation”, agrees W. Grant Thompson, M.D., gastroenterologist of the University of Ottawa, author of the book Gut Reactions.
“If … the average intake of dietary fibre was 40 grams per day instead of less than 20 grams, much of the problem of constipation would be eradicated.” – Alison M. Stephen, M.D., University of Saskatchewan.
For a start you can try high-fiber wheat-bran cereals, beginning with one-third to one-half cup a day, adding as needed say authorities. Also, choose heavy, “whole-grain” breads. Look for the words “whole wheat” as the first ingredient on bread labels. Or bake your own bread using whole-grain flour. Another quick and easy solution is to add raw, unprocessed wheat bran to your favorite cereals or other foods. This bran, also known as miller’s bran, because it is the residue from milling white flour, is also commonly available on cereal shelves and in health food stores, is probably the most scientifically tested remedy for constipation. It is particularly popular in Britain. Classic British studies indicate that eating about one and a half ounces of miller’s bran a day doubles the weight of the stool. What make this bran so powerful is its raw, coarsely ground particles. Cereals like All-bran have been processed, which lightly lessens their laxative powers, meaning you have to eat somewhat more to get an effect. “If the bran is not chewy, it probably won’t work,” says Dr. Read.
Research shows that bran’s rough-edged particles mechanically stimulate the nerves of the bowel lining, promoting colonic movement. The bowel’s nerve endings are exquisitely sensitive that merely touching them with a soft brush induces muscular contractions and secretions, says Dr. Read. Thus, coarse, raw bran flakes have double laxative activity – by increasing stool bulk and stimulating the colon wall.
HOW MUCH BRAN IS ENOUGH?
To combat constipation, try “a heaping tablespoonful of miller’s bran a day,” says Dr. Read. He suggests sprinkling the bran on cereal or other foods at each meal. However, there is really no right single “dose” of miller’s bran for everyone. Most people need a tablespoon a day to pass soft stool without straining, but others need less, and some need several tablespoons. To find out, test it on yourself; wait to see what happens and then raise or lower the dose as needed.
RICE BRAN – A SUPER SUPERIOR LAXATIVE
For a super laxative, also try rice bran, a foodstuff long used in Asia and now found in many American food markets and health food stores. Dr. Read finds rice bran surprisingly superior even to wheat bran as a laxative. “We din’t expect it”, he says. Seeking tastier alternatives to miller’s bran, Dr. Read had eight healthy young men eat either 15 grams of fiber in wheat bran or powdered rice bran or no supplement for ten-day periods. That came to a daily total of a bout two and a half ounces of rice bran and a third ounces of raw wheat-bran eaten at mealtime with fluids.
Both brans boosted stool frequency and output of feces, but rice bran was clearly superior. Rice-bran eaters had about 25 percent more bowel movements. All had greater stool output. Both wheat and rice bran reduce gut transit time equally well. Neither produce any change in intestinal gas, stool consistency or ease of defecation. Dr. Read speculates that the high starch in rice bran may spur colon bacteria to greater activity, increasing stool bulk. He also says oat bran has some laxative properties.
“A heaping tablespoon of [miller’s] bran a day is usually sufficient to combat constipation.” Denis Butkitt, M.D.
GO SLOW AND DRINK PLENTY OF LIQUIDS
If you start eating more high-fiber foods, you can experience some discomfort – bloating and gas initially, says Johns Hopskin professor Marvin Schuster, M.D., although the distress usually disappears in two or three weeks. But add the fiber slowly, increasing it as needed, and cutting back if your discomfort level is high.
You can get into trouble if you suddenly dump too much fiber into your system all at once, and especially if you don’t drink enough fluids to soak up this fiber, keeping the bowel contents soft and easy to move. Drinking too little fluid is a classic cause of hard stools and is even more so if you eat a high-fiber diet. Usually six to eight glasses of water a day are enough to prevent hard stools, says Dr. Schuster.
WHEN THE BRAN CURE IS WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM
Consider one thirty-four-year-old man who physician told him to eat a large bowl of bran cereal – about two onuces or two-thirds of a cup (with twenty grams of fiber) every day to cure his constipation. He apparently ate all of that and possibly more on the theory that if some is good, more is better.
Ten days later the fellow was in severe abdominal pain with nausea, vomiting and fever. X rays and exploratory surgery found a large obstruction in a man’s small bowel. It was removed by surgery and found to be an eighteen-inch-long mass of fibrous plant material. So reported Daniel Miller, M.D., of the Georgetown University Hospital in the Journal of The American Medical Association.
The overdose of fiber was a sudden shock to the man’s system, says Dr. Miller. Also the man did not drink sufficient fluids and was on diuretic medication that pulled fluid from the body. Here’s Dr. Miller’s advice: Gradually increase your fiber intake over a period of four to six weeks to give your system a chance to adapt. Be sure to drink lots of fluids, especially you are on diuretic medications. Include a variety of high fiber grains, fruits and vegetables in your diet
BEST BETS TO FIGHT CONSTIPATION – IN ORDER
- Brans, such as unprocessed coarse wheat bran (miller’s bran and rice bran
- Processed bran cereals such as All-bran and other whole-grain cereals.
- Whole-wheat bread
- Legumes/peas, beans and nuts
- Dried fruits and berries
- Root vegetables, including potatoes and carrots
- Leafy vegetables such as spinach
- Apples, oranges and other fruits
A CUP OF COFFEE – A FAST-ACTING LAXATIVE
For a quick and mild laxative, try a cup of coffee. Both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee promote bowel movements in about one-third of the healthy population, say Dr. Read. He did a study after hearing so often from patients that coffee was a laxative. In 14 healthy men and women, Dr. Read documented that the beverage stimulated the urge for a bowel movement in certain coffee “responders”. Subjects drank six fluid ounces of either regular or decaffeinated coffee, or of plain hot water. Then researchers, using a rectal probe, measure changes in the pressure and movement within the colon.
The coffee had an amazingly fast effect. Surprisingly, distinct contractions (motility) in the bowel were detected within just four minutes after drinking the coffee. This suggests, Dr. Read says, that coffee somehow sends an advance message to the colon via hormones in the stomach or some neurological mechanism. There’s no way the coffee could reach the colon so fast, he says. The increased motility lasted for at least half an hour. The hot water did nothing unusual.
Coffee is more apt to have a laxative effect in women than in men, Dr. Read found. He also suspects it works best in the morning and perhaps not at all later in the day. As for what the laxative compound in coffee is, Dr. Read does not know. Obviously, contrary to popular belief, it is not the caffeine.
“A cup of strong coffee is a good treatment of occasional acute constipation. But don’t rely on coffee constantly as a laxative, because it is addicting.” – Andrew Weil, M.D., University of Arizona College of Medicine
YES, PRUNES – BUT WHY IS A MYSTERY
“Prunes are laxative and nutritious… Imparting their laxative properties to boiling water, they serve as a pleasant and useful addition to purgative decoctions. Their pulp is used in the preparation of laxative confections. Too largely taken, they are apt to occasion flatulence, gripping and indegestion.”
So said the authoritative Dispensatory of the United States, published in 1907, and used by physicians as a prescription guide.
Prune eaters through the ages would agree they are laxatives. But oddly, scientists have never isolated the so-called magic cathartic agent in prunes. Does one exist? Prunes, of course, are high in fiber, and Barbara Schneeman, Ph.D., a fiber expert at the University of California at Davis, deems fiber the laxative agent. “There is no other magic in prunes”, she insists. In a recent test of 41 men, she found that adding twelve prunes a day to their regular diet increased the bulk of bowel movements an average 20 percent. (Incidentally, their bad type LDL cholesterol also fell about 4 percent). Another possibility: Prunes are extraordinarily high in sorbitol, a natural sugar that is a laxative for many people. Prunes are 15 percent sorbital. While most fruits are only 1 percent sorbitol.
Nevertheless, since 1931, experts have searched for what they believe to be a unique drug-like chemical in prunes that, unlike fiber, reportedly stimulates contractions of the intestinal wall and increases secretion of fluid. In 1951, three researchers at Harrower Laboratory, St. Louis, claimed to have cracked the mystery. They reported isolating the chemical called diphenylisatin that resembled an over counter laxative drug. But, try as they might, scientists could not find this chemical or any other in prunes that acted as a chemical laxative. Numerous tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on mice in the 1960s decidedly confirmed prune power and suggested the mineral magnesium as a possible agent. But isolated. Magnesium did not work. “It seems that the famous prune chemical works only when it is in the prunes,” researchers concluded. The prune mystery remains unsolved.
LAXATIVE JAM RECIPE
Here’s an easy recipe tested on 42 elderly people in a Canadian veterans’s hospital in Quebec. Constipated patients who ate about a tablespoon of the jam every day increased their frequency of bowel movements and reduced their consumption of laxatives compared with those who did not get the jam. It was such a success that the hospital has continued to “prescribe” the daily jam as a remedy for constipation.
- 5 ounces pitted dates (about a cup)
- 5 ounces pitted prunes (about a cup)
- 1 ½ cups boiling water. Use slightly less for thicker jam.
ANCIENT MIXUP: RHUBARB – THE UNREAL THING
Generations of grandmothers have extolled rhubarb as a laxative, and it has a formidable anticonstipation reputation in folklore. But don’t count on it. Actually, common garden rhubarb does not have any significant laxative effects, say experts. True, edible supermarket rhubarb contains compounds called anthraquines, common in laxatives such as cascara and senna – but in tiny amounts.
It’s all a case of botanical mixup, explains medical plant expert Norman Farnsworth, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The real laxative, he says, is an ancient variety of rhubarb called tahuang (great yellow) grown high in the mountains of Western China and Tibet. The rhizomes (underground stems) of such rhubarb – dried, cut and pulverized into a yellow powder – have been sold for centuries as a powerful purgative. In fact, rhubarb as a laxative was first mentioned in a Chinese herbal dated about 2700 B.C. and was a prized drug, carried by trading caravans to ancient Greece, Turkey and Persia. Some laxatives sold in the United States may still contain these rhubarb extracts, says Dr. Farnsworth, although the whole drug itself is no longer available here.
Our supermarket stuff is a distant cousin and pale imitation of the traditional medicinal rhubarb of the Orient. Our edible rhubarb stems have no measurable laxative properties, says Dr. Farnsworth. The leaves may have purgative powers, but it would be unwise to use them because they are poisonous.
FOODS TO WATCH OUT FOR
Caffeine. Although coffee can be a laxative, caffeine can alsi contribute to constipation in some. One survey of 15,000 men and women by University of North Carolina researchers noted that those who were often constipated drank more tea and coffee. A possible reason: the nerves of the colon may come to tolerate the constant stimulant effect off coffee and caffeine, thus become sluggish, just as they often do when people become overdepent on over the counter stimulant-type laxatives. Another possibility, according to Scandinavian investigators: caffeine acts as a diuretic, disturbing the body fluid balance by drawing fluids out of the gut where they are needed to soften the stool. Thus the stool stays hard and becomes difficult to expel.
If coffee makes you constipated, it’s time to let up on it.
Mild and calcium. In some people milk and cheese can be extremely constipating, probably because of the calcium, cautions Dr. Schuster.
DIET AND ADVICE FOR REGULARITY
- To prevent and relieve simple uncomplicated constipation, eat more high-fiber foods, including fruits and vegetables and mainly bran cereals. Unprocessed wheat bran (miller’s bran) and rice bran are the most powerful.
- Add fiber gradually to your diet, and drink lots of liquids. There is really no reason for so many Americans to be on harsh, potentially dangerous pharmaceutial laxatives, when a natural, safe food remedy is so readily available.
Caution: Although the same general advice for combating constipation in adults applies to children, it is not a good idea to add miller’s bran or rice bran directly to a child’s diet because of their high potency. Concentrate on giving a constipated child lots of fiber-rich of whole grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables and fluids. If that does not cure the problem, see a pediatrician.