Constipation is the most common digestive complaint in the U.S. Population. It can make life miserable, leaving you to feel bloated, achy, and irritable. It is estimated that each year in the U.S., chronic constipation leads to around 2.5 million doctor visits and medication costs of up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Constipation can be defined as having less than 3 bowel movements per week or bowel movements that require lots of straining and low output. I personally believe that having healthy bowel movements daily is a sign of a healthy digestive tract, and failure of at least one per day on a consistent basis, is cause for concern.
So, if constipation has plagued you, there is a high probability that you have sought some sort of help. Either you have tried “over-the-counter” products or even sought the help of a health care provider. In either case, if your constipation wasn’t resolved or simply returned in the absence of the medication or supplement, then the “true” underlying problem wasn’t addressed.
A common approach to correcting constipation is the evaluation of the health of your gut. Many healthcare practitioners will look for blockages and evaluate gut flora. And in many cases, bacteria, yeast, and parasites are often present contributing to the problem. But what if you have tried “gut cleanses”, healing diets, pro-biotics, and gut enzymes, yet you still struggle with constipation? It is most likely because your brain hasn’t been evaluated.
Yes, that’s right, your brain! Most doctors understand how the gut impacts the brain but many forget to evaluate how the brain is impacting your gut. 90% of your brain’s output is designated for the Autonomic nervous system. This is the system that works “automatically” and is responsible for such processes as your heart beating, lungs breathing, and gut digesting.
Your gastrointestinal tract actually has its very own “brain” called the enteric nervous system. This system is responsible for the information to instruct your gut to move food along your intestines. The enteric system is controlled by your Vagus nerve which is a nerve that comes down from your brainstem. When the communication is weakened between your brain, vagus nerve, and your enteric system, all types of gastrointestinal disorders can arise including constipation.
Testing Your Brain
Clinically there are several things that can be done to identify if your brain’s health is playing a part in your constipation.
- For instance, since the vagus is responsible for bowel motility, a practitioner should be able to hear rumbling in the abdomen with a stethoscope. When the gut-brain axis is impaired, it is common to hear very little rumbling.
- The vagus nerve is responsible for raising the uvula, the tissue in the back of your throat that looks like a punching bag. When you visit your doctor and say “ahh” he or she is looking for it to rise. When the vagus is not working well the uvula does not rise much or rises higher on one side than the other.
- The gag reflex is also not very responsive.
When exam findings show these functions are poor in a person with chronic digestive problems and a poor brain function, it indicates a strong possibility the gut-brain axis is not working well.
Training Your Brain
Like muscles, neurons need constant stimulation to be healthy. If you break your arm and wear a cast, the muscles shrink within weeks from reduced activity. Neurons are no different. Without activation they lose function. If a poorly functioning brain does not stimulate the vagus nerve, the result is reduced activation of the gastrointestinal tract.
There are several exercises that you can do to rehabilitate the vagus nerve. As your stimulate weak neurons they develop more proteins to become stronger. This is called the development of positive plasticity and can be done with any part of the brain.
Vagal exercises are easy to perform at home.
The first exercise is to gargle with water several times a day. The vagus nerve activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle. Gargling contracts these muscles, which activates the vagus nerve and stimulates the gastrointestinal tract.
Drink several large glasses of water per day and gargle each sip until you finish the glass of water. You should gargle long enough and deep enough to make it a bit challenging (until it produces tears). Do this several times per day for several weeks.
Sing at the top of your lungs while at home or in your car. This works the muscles in the back off the throat to activate the vagus. This exercise may become a nuisance for family members, but it can be effective.
Purchase a box of tongue blades so you can stimulate your gag reflex throughout the day. Do not jab the back of your throat with tongue blade and hurt yourself, just lay the tongue blade on the back of your tongue and push down to activate a gag reflex.
Gag reflexes are like doing push-ups for the vagus while gargling and singing loudly are like doing sprints. It will take some time using these exercises to strengthen vagal tone and the gut-brain axis. You need to perform them for several weeks to produce change.
I know this might seem a little extreme but nothing seems to work better for improving constipation than coffee enemas. Distending the intestines with an enema activates the vagus. The caffeine in the coffee stimulates intestinal motility by acting on cholinergic receptors. Daily enemas are required for best results and as you notice bowel function improvement over time, you can begin to wean off the enemas.
A coffee enema is easy to do. First you need to purchase an enema bag with anal insert tube and a lubricant such as KY Jelly. Then make organic coffee and cool it to room temperature. (Do not use instant coffee as many brands are contaminated with gluten.) The next step is to fill the enema bag with coffee and lubricate the anal tip of the tube. You will then need to lie on your right side. It is best to perform this in the bathtub in case you spill anything. Then insert the tube into your anus and raise the bag with your hand until it is higher than your head. The higher you raise the bag the faster the bag will empty.
Once the coffee has drained from the bag into your intestines try to hold the contents in your bowel for five to 10 minutes. You will have urges to have a bowel movement, but hold the contents as long as you can. The coffee will stimulate the cholinergic receptors in your intestines and activate motility, as well as, stimulate your vagal system to develop plasticity. The cholinergic simulation from coffee with also cause your gallbladder to contract, and release liver metabolism end-products in to your bowel for elimination.
When it comes to your overall health, and especially your gut health, nothing is more important than the health of your brain. By addressing your overall brain health and “re-stimulating” your vagal nerve firing, you can improve your gastrointestinal motility and eliminate constipation.