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Diarrhea, Constipation and Everything in Between

Digestive distress is a really common ailment with a range of causes and symptoms. Sometimes it results from too much food, too little food, stress or anxiety, illness or medication, or undiagnosed food sensitivities. However it happens, neither diarrhea or constipation are fun – but both are indicators that something deeper is unbalanced in our bodies.

What does it mean to have a healthy digestion? There are lots of factors at play – hormones, diet, sleep patterns, stress patterns, habits, and more – but basically healthy digestion is a combination of many key components:

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  • Regular ebbs and flows of hunger: you feel clearly hungry at intervals throughout the day, ideally at the same time each day with at least 4 hours apart;

  • Clear feelings of satiety when finished eating, and no impulse to overeat (or to undereat, deprive yourself, or ‘diet’);

  • Relaxed, easy digestion after meals, without any heartburn, upset stomach, gastrointestinal distress (gas, bloating, or immediate bowel movements);

  • At least one regular, daily bowel movement, expelled with ease and without cramping, straining, or constipation.

Healthy digestion is a key component of overall wellness because it helps to keep our blood sugar balanced, which can reduce anxiety and improve sleep habits. Good digestion is way to maximize your overall wellness because the digestive system (the excretory system) helps flush toxins and waste from our body; in addition, more and more research is showing that a healthy gut (intestinal) system boosts mental health, immunity, overall health, and more!

A full look at the digestive system is beyond the scope of this article, so we’ll focus on two really common symptoms of unhappy digestion: diarrhea and constipation, and how to remedy either of these issues when they arise.

What is Diarrhea?

Diarrhea results in frequent, often uncomfortable, and usually fluid or liquid bowel movements. The frequency can change, as can the consistency of the bowel movement, but it’s generally not solid stool. Occasional bouts of diarrhea are often the result of stress, anxiety, an illness, or food poisoning. Longer term diarrhea can result from illness, spoiled  food, or some type of intestinal issue, like allergies, sensitivities, parasites or other gut dysbiosis.

If you have a sudden onset of diarrhea, try to determine what the cause might be (food, sickness, and/or stress), and treat accordingly. Diarrhea is a way for the body to remove toxins or invaders quickly, so the best remedy is to let it run its course, let it heal naturally, and avoid any over the counter medicines to stop the flow, unless you are traveling or otherwise won’t have access to a bathroom. However, if the bout lasts longer than 1-2 days, go see a doctor. Diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which can worsen symptoms and make you sicker.

Herbal Remedies for Diarrhea

If you are able to drink liquids, digestive-healing herbs can be quite helpful. These include chamomile, fennel, ginger, meadowsweet and peppermint, which can help settle the stomach, hydrate the body, and flush out any toxins that might have brought on the diarrhea. Astringent herbs – those that tighten tissues and have a drying effect – can also help reduce the frequency of the flow. Herbs that might be helpful include blackberry leaf and root, oak, linden leaf and flower, yellow dock, horsetail, bayberry, comfrey, and nettle. Yarrow, while a bitter tea, can be good if you suspect bacteria is behind the sickness. Green and black tea can be astringent and comforting, but be sure to ingest other fluids as these can exacerbate diarrhea due to caffeine content which is sometimes stimulating to bowels. Other herbs to consider once the bout feels like it’s nearly over are moistening, like marshmallow root or leaf and calendula , which can help soothe and heal the digestive tract. Chia seeds and flax seeds have similar qualities, as does psyllium: all three help bulk up the stool for more regular elimination and can soothe the intestines.

Food During and Post Diarrhea

If you are well enough to eat, start with clear veggie or homemade grassfed bone broth (boxed stuff from the store is not medicinal), pureed vegetable soups, or some pre-soaked and well-cooked grains like oats, quinoa, or rice. Eat small amounts and let your system return back to normal slowly. Once back to eating full meals, make sure to include lots of healthy prebiotic foods (foods high in soluble fiber that can slow digestion down to a healthy speed and feed your beneficial bacteria). Foods high in soluble fiber include cooked, cooled and then reheated sweet potatoes (I know, this is very specific), artichokes, parsnips, beets, asparagus, turnips, rutabaga, butternut squash, winter squash and more. You can roast or incorporate these veggies into some nice soups, stir fries and stews. Also include traditionally fermented foods, like organic miso paste, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, apple cider vinegar, pickles, tempeh, natto, raw cheese and yogurt. Make sure that you are getting live culture, traditionally fermented items, and not vinegar-based pickles.. Only the live cultures will aid in gut rehabilitation; these will be in the refrigerated section of the store.

What is Constipation?

On the other end of the spectrum is constipation, wherein bowel movements are infrequent, painful, or ‘stuck.’ Approximately 1 in 4 Americans suffers with constipation, and most of it is preventable.

Like diarrhea, constipation can be the result of many things. Some things that exacerbate or cause constipation include stress, anxiety, food allergies/sensitivities, medications, dehydration, or inadequate fiber in your diet. Many of these are easily remedied with improved food choices that are higher in fiber and foods that are full of water like soups, fresh fruits and veggies and sauces.  If you’re on medication, you may need more than food/liquid changes to see results.

If you suffer from occasional bouts of constipation, there are few quick ways to get things moving. Firstly, increase the amount of liquids in your diet, especially by swapping in moist or wet foods like soups, veggie rich smoothies, stews, fresh fruit, sauces etc. Even with ample fiber in your diet, the body needs significant fluid to keep things moving. Incorporating fresh or cooked vegetables also provides fluids to the body that are key in keeping bowel movements healthy.

To speed digestion up in the body and avoid constipation, you’ll want to consume foods with insoluble fiber specifically. When people say “fiber rich diet” that doesn’t mean drink Metamucil with your potato chips – the suggestion is to eat REAL foods that are fibrous and natural (foods that don't come in packaging or that have more than one ingredient).What does that include? Things such as leafy greens, corn, celery, onions, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, brussel's sprouts, garlic and others; whole grains such as rice, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, amaranth can also be helpful. If you eat whole grains, make sure they are properly soaked and sprouted first. What if you increase your insoluble fiber and you are still backed up? Now may be the time to consider adding psyllium husk. But please give adding copious amounts of vegetables (think visually 80% of any plate of food you eat!!) a shot first.

Psyllium husk is the seed of a grass that contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, and is a powerful stool bulker. You can buy in bulk in natural food stores or under names like ‘colon cleanse;’ psyllium is the main ingredient in Metamucil, which also contains flavors and colorings, so it’s best avoided. Always take psyllium with lots of water during and after consumption to avoid intestinal blockage.

Another great way to add more fiber is with flaxseeds or chia seeds; as a bonus these seeds are mucilaginous and can help heal the intestinal walls. Chia can be eaten whole, but flax is best taken freshly ground. With either, be sure to increase the amount of water (or non-caffeinated/non-diuretic liquids) in your diet, otherwise the excess fiber will compound the constipation.

Another contributing factor to constipation is ignoring the signals that tell us to GO. Whether you’re stuck in traffic or just ‘too busy,’ ignoring the signals means that feces stays in your colon longer, which can lead to harder more compacted stools that are more difficult to pass. So when you feel the need to urinate or defecate – answer Nature’s call as soon as possible! 

Herbal Remedies for Constipation

In addition to the diet remedies above, there are lots of natural ways to reduce constipation. One of the most lovely ways to do so is with epsom salt baths. Epsom salt is a magnesium salt, which can have powerful laxative effects. Add a very small amount of  essential oils like lavender, vetiver, cedarwood, or peppermint to make it deeply relaxing (5 drops max per bath is a good rule of thumb). You can mix your essential oils with milk or honey which allows them to penetrate the bath more freely.

Other easy ways to relieve constipation:

  • Drink warm lemon water upon waking everyday. The warmth helps relax the body, and the liquid is good after a night of sleep to rehydrate. Lemon has detoxifying effects for the bowels as well. 

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  • Aloe and aloe vera juice: aloe is deeply nourishing to the digestive system, and can be a powerful detoxifier. If you have access to fresh aloe, blend with water or a little fruit juice; otherwise you can purchase aloe vera juice and natural food stores. Start with a few tablespoons each day. Your body can become dependent on laxatives like aloe so be careful utilizing this solution over true diet and liquid intake changes.
  • Herbal teas: Calming digestive teas like peppermint, fennel and chamomile can be quite good, but for acute cases of constipation you could also try senna, fenugreek, or buckthorn.

  • Honey: Stir in 1-2 Tablespoons of honey into warm water or tea and sip; honey has minerals and enzymes that can help improve movement in digestive system.  

  • Include healthy fats in your diet: healthy fats keep the whole digestive system lubricated.

  • Take your probiotics: Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms that live in our gut and help with overall digestion. You can get them naturally in foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, and other fermented foods, but you can also add probiotic supplements into your diet.

  • Move your body! Take regular walks, attend regular yoga classes where twists are part of the postures, work out or dance. Moving your body will help your bowels move as well. 

  • Singing or other chanting or vocal work increases vagal nerve tone, which is related to motility. Toning this muscle is not only helpful with digestion but also helpful for calming the nervous system. 

Bathroom picture by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦, mint water image by Francesca Hotchin 

Blair Townley