How Irregular (February 26, 2018)
I dread writing this essay. Just a bit, but I do. I am not sure that I am equal to the task, because the subject of constipation (you DID realize that was what this is all about?) seems to me to call for puns, the more the better. End-less puns... The problem is, your basic constipation pun is probably more than a little off-color, even for one of these newsletters.
Of course we don’t have to limit constipation humor to puns. Because it is already a big joke - to anyone who has never had it, anyway. But especially for people who are genuinely frail, otherwise ill or elderly, it can be more than a minor nuisance. And it’s my feeling that there’s really only one way for people who are otherwise healthy to handle it. So here we are.
Now, before we really get, um, going here, I do want to take a moment to step a bit to the side and explode a superstition, and that’s this – “auto-intoxication” is not a Thing. You can stop worrying your pretty little head about THAT right now.
You may not have heard the phrase "auto-intoxication" unless you have spent at least a little time on the wilder side of the natural health movement, so I will take a moment here to define it. Despite what it sounds like, “auto-intoxication” does not refer to the fun kind of intoxication. If there are people out there who can do THAT kind of intoxication to themselves, I salute them and fervently hope that they manage to eventually pass their genes on to the whole human race. No, the root “-tox-” here is as it is in "toxic", meaning "poison".
Auto-intoxication is the poisoning of the body by its own self-generated toxins. In the natural health community, for well over a century now it has been used to refer specifically to the idea that fecal matter that hangs around too long in the colon will decay and the products of said putrescence will be re-absorbed by the body, thereby essentially poisoning it. Urrkh.
But short of out-and-out diseases such as leaky gut, ulcerative colitis and the like, there’s really no evidence that there is such a thing as auto-intoxication. Certainly it won't occur just because you didn't eat your vegetables for a few days, or even for a few weeks. However, the reality of the existence of auto-intoxication is almost besides the point. Because just how long do you want fecal matter to be hanging out rent-free in your colon anyway?
People who don’t produce a regular butterscotch just don’t feel good. In chinese medicine, there's no wiggle room in the "normal" department for frequency of bowel movements; you have at least one a day or your doctor will have something to say about it. In fact, it's one of the standard ten questions that a chinese doctor will ask in his/her evaluation of a new patient or a new problem, roughly translated as "how's your poop?".
Not so here in the oh-so-progressive West. In fact, in Victorian England, a lady was looked upon askance if she had more than one bowel movement per week. I imagine that was one of the driving forces of the British colonial period. Gentlemen probably found the violent conquest of other cultures to be far more pleasant than living at home with their politely constipated ladies.
However, we are much more enlightened now, although sometimes it may not seem that way. And in accord with that, it’s always better to correct the disturbance of a natural function by correcting the reason it's disturbed. Alcohol after 6 PM can make you wake up in the middle of the night; so you quit drinking so much after 6 PM rather than taking a sleeping pill and then suddenly waking up driving in reverse down the I-40.
In the case of constipation, there are three very common lifestyle reasons that it becomes an issue. One is not enough exercise. Another is insufficient fluids in the diet. And a third is insufficient fiber consumption. Fix those, you fix most cases of garden-variety constipation.
There are a zillion ways to “fix” constipation that have nothing to do with the root causes of the problem. Laxatives irritate the muscle of the bowel into spasm, force water into the stool itself, prevent water re-absorption by the bowel, etc. And then there are enemas. It all sounds a little rough to me, especially if you can avoid the whole business.
So these three items to consider are:
Exercise. The average person walks about 5,000 steps per day, with 1,000-3,000 being what a “sedentary” person walks. 10,000 is considered to be a healthy distance. (A study of an Amish community found the average was 14,000 to 18,000 per days. Just sayin’.) All of which goes to say that if you aren’t even making that 5,000 steps (a little over two miles), start there first.
Fluids. That’s the old recommendation of eight glasses. By the way, “glasses” means “eight ounces”. So the recommendation to drink eight glasses of water a day is about a half a gallon. That’s NOT that much. And for the purposes of constipation, Gatorade, Snapple and beer all qualify. Of course water is better. Of course more than eight glasses is better. But 64 ounces (half a gallon) is the lower limit, and shouldn't be that hard to achieve.
Fiber. 40+ grams a day of fiber is what was found in the good old days, before Wonder Bread and popcorn okra. These days, people get about 12-15 grams. No wonder passing food along to its inevitable end gets stalled. What’s recommended is 25-35 grams per day at least -- so you can see that the average is well under half the recommended. Fewer than 5% of people get in that 25-35 gram range.
Here’s the thing about fiber, though. Not all fiber is alike. And there are no end of fiber products out there that do nothing but cost you money while pretending to do something for you. Plus – fiber has a LOT of benefits to it besides encouraging the presence of more mr. boombooms. So next time I want to talk about fiber as a separate topic.
But it comes down to this, as it so often does. You want your body to be healthy for your lifetime? Then you treat it with respect. Give it what it needs to function normally. And usually, it will.
--dr. diane holmes
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