Dealing with constipation naturally
This article is part of a regular series exploring how nutrition can support various health issues, and is written by Emily Fawell DipION, a qualified Nutritional Therapist based in Ealing and the City of London.
Constipation is surprisingly common in young children, and it can be very upsetting to see your child in the distress and pain that this condition causes. It is defined as infrequency or difficulty in passing a stool, or having an incomplete motion.
A healthy bowel moves at least once a day. An easy test to determine transit time (the time taken from mouth to anus) is to give your child a fist sized amount (theirs – not yours!) of beetroot, and time how long it takes for the pink poo to emerge! Beetroot is also a great natural remedy for constipation – find out why below.
There can be a number of causes of constipation:
Children can cause themselves to have constipation, by retaining a stool, as a reaction to emotional stress that they are experiencing. This could be due to issues within the family, worries about going to nursery or school, worries about potty training that has started to early. Often they have been frightened by a previous painful experience of constipation, and fear of repeating the experience is causing them to retain the stool.
A lack of fibre in the diet will cause constipation, as there is no fibrous matter to absorb the water which is necessary for a soft stool. A diet high in refined carbohydrates (white bread, cakes, biscuits and pastries made with white flour, white rice and pasta) will contain little fibre.
Dehydration will cause constipation. In the colon water is absorbed from the faeces to hydrate the body. If your child has a low intake of water then once the body has absorbed water from the colon, they will be left with a hard, dry stool.
An imbalance in gut flora can lead to constipation
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, in particular vitamin C and magnesium can cause constipation. Magnesium is vital for the proper functioning of nerves and muscles, and a lack of it could interfere with peristalsis, which is the muscular contraction that our digestive system creates continuously to propel food and then faeces through our bodies.
Food allergy or intolerance can cause digestive problems, including constipation. This is worth exploring if you find that your child suffers with constipation after they have eaten certain foods. Wheat is often a culprit as it can congest the bowel and slow down transit time.
A high intake of saturated fat (dairy products especially cheese, red meats) can upset normal bowel function and cause constipation
Constipation can also be attributed to a lack of physical activity
Suggestions to avoid constipation:
- Encourage your child to chew food thoroughly. The digestive process is stimulated by the action of chewing. If food is not chewed sufficiently then the rest of the digestive system has to work harder to break down the food particles.
- Make sure your child is consuming enough soluble and insoluble fibre, which is found in fruit and vegetables and complex carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread and pasta and brown rice. Soluble fibre soaks up water, providing the bulk needed for a healthy stool. The increased bulk stimulates peristalsis and moves the faeces through the intestines. Insoluble fibre, found in the skin and pips of fruit and vegetables and in bran, nuts and flaxseed meal, provides weight to the stool, decreasing transit time and promoting regularity. Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
- Increase water intake. As a guideline if your child’s urine is clear by 3pm then they are consuming sufficient water. Water will be absorbed by soluble fibre and will keep the digestive tract moist and smooth.
- Encourage your child to eat live probiotic yoghurt regularly. This provides them with a supply of good bacteria to maintain healthy gut flora. Gut flora aid digestion by providing bulk, regulating peristalsis and encouraging regular bowel movements. Offer them yoghurt with chopped fruit or berries for breakfast or as a pudding.
- Ensure that your child gets plenty of exercise. This will strengthen and massage the abdominal muscles, which help support a healthy digestive system
- Ensure that bitter foods form part of your child’s diet. This includes foods such as beetroot, rocket, kale, spinach and aubergine. Bitter foods stimulate the liver to produce bile, which is a natural laxative, containing toxins that the body wants to eliminate. It triggers peristalsis (movement within the bowel) having a positive effect on digestion and reducing the likelihood of constipation. To alleviate constipation try eating a fist sized beetroot over the course of each day.
- If you suspect that your child is retaining their stool because of emotional issues, maybe try reading them a story when they are on the toilet, to encourage them to relax.
If constipation is chronic, i.e. a regular feature, and you have followed all of the dietary suggestions above you should take your child to the GP to rule out any physical or metabolic problem
If you are interested in an individualised programme to improve your child’s diet or would like help with other health issues, please call Emily Fawell DipION, Nutritional Therapist on 07967 639347 or contact me via email Emily@4wellpeople.co.uk