Routine is key, and whatever your particular brand of "regular" is, it's important to keep it. There are six basic things that can help you from getting too bunged up: breathing, fiber, water, flora, exercise, and poo-sition.
In Asian medicine, the lungs and large intestine are viewed as a pair because they affect each other on multiple levels. One way this plays out is their physical positioning; in the body, the lungs sit above the intestines. If you're severely constipated and the large intestine is taking up more than its fair share of space, the lungs can feel constricted, and you may find it hard to breathe. Deep breathing actively pushes down on the top of the large intestines and gently forces them to move.
- Sit in a comfortable position with both feet flat on the floor.
- Place both hands over you lower stomach.
- Slowly breathe in to the count of 6. As you breathe in, be conscious of your body position; your belly and chest should gently expand outwards.
- Keep your shoulders relaxed and loose. If you find your shoulders rising upwards, it means you're breathing into the top part of your lungs rather than your lower belly.
- Once you reach the count of 6, gently suspend your breath by holding it for another count of 6.
- Breathe out to the count of 8. Use your diaphragm to push every last ounce of air out of your lungs.
- Gently suspend your breath again by holding it out to the count of 6.
- Repeat the counted breathing cycle for approximately 5 minutes.
This type of deep belly breathing is fantastic for lazy intestines that simply don't feel like moving. By using your diaphragm in a controlled manner, you're pushing and relaxing the top of your intestines from inside your body.
Your belly loves fiber! It's important to find the right balance, though. Too little and you may not remember the last time you went to the bathroom; too much and you'll never leave the toilet. Start by noting the difference between soluble and insoluble dietary fiber and tracking your intake so that you can decide which one you may be missing.
- Soluble fiber absorbs water, bulks up your poop, and smoothes it out to create the kind of bathroom moment where you want to high-five yourself. If you have the urge to defecate but you're having difficulty passing and find yourself on the throne waiting for something to happen – increase your soluble fiber. Foods that contain soluble fiber are oatmeal, apples, oranges, pears, berries, ground flax, legumes, and psyllium husk.
- Insoluble fiber doesn't absorb water. Its job is to keep everything moving along and sweep your system from the inside out. Its mild laxative effect is important since it acts as house cleaning. If you find that after you're "done" in the bathroom you don't feel as if Elvis has completely left the building, add insoluble fiber to your diet. Foods that are made up of high quantities of insoluble fiber include whole grains, nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, celery, broccoli, cabbage, onions, dried fruit, and root vegetable skins. However, note that if you're recovering from fire in the belly such as diverticulitis, it’s best to avoid too much insoluble fiber. You need to be sure the walls of the intestines are strong enough to handle a little scrubbing first.
There's a method to relieving constipation in Asian herbal therapy where you use herbs to "float the boat out." What this refers to is getting enough water into the intestines to help hard poop exit with the water. However, in order for this to work, you need to be drinking enough – if you're dehydrated, so is your poop. One of the primary jobs of the large intestine is to conserve and recycle water by pulling H2O out of whatever may be present. If you have waste matter that's been hanging out too long, it's going to become dried out and difficult to pass.
It's also important to note that when you increase fiber, you need to increase your fluid intake because soluble fiber absorbs water. When eating fiber, you need to drink extra water to stay hydrated and prevent constipation. The best way is to sip on it through out the day and make sure it's always within easy reach.
The probiotics that we host in our guts work in tandem with digestive enzymes to break down food into nutrients our bodies can use. In return, probiotics love nothing more than to feast on the leftover fiber from our digested food. Gas, bloating, nausea, and general tummy trouble could mean that your internal ecosystem is off. For more info on probiotics, including when to use them and recommendations for which ones to buy, check out my Probiotic Primer.
If you want to poop like a champ, you need to move like a champ. Exercise helps stimulate the natural contractions of your intestines (called peristalsis) and keeps the muscles in your core surrounding your intestines in shape. The movement of these muscles helps the intestines move, especially when they're a bit sluggish. Yoga can help ease constipation, especially thanks to the twisting movements and deep breathing involved. Moderate aerobic activity, such as walking or light running, is another way to help keep things moving on a regular basis.
Relatively speaking, the porcelain throne is a recent advent in human history. When I first started working in Japan, I was horrified to discover squat toilets in the office. "Western" toilets are in countryside restrooms and reserved for the invalid. However, after a few weeks I came to LOVE the Japanese style of squatting in the bathroom. It was easier and cleaner, my bum never had to go near a dirty seat, and less effort was needed. The physical action of squatting means your stomach is placed against your legs and your butt becomes the lowest point on the body directing everything downwards – letting gravity help your body move things along.
Rather than redoing your plumbing, an alternative is to rest your feet on a short stool while sitting on the toilet. You can order specific toilet benches (a.k.a. Squatty Potty) that wrap around the front of a toilet to put your feet on so you're positioned correctly. If need be, lean forward so your stomach is up against your thighs. The simple adjustment shifts your body to a more natural position and encourages healthy elimination.