Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Your health: Natural options for constipation

One in three people suffer from constipation. Photo / iStock
One in three people suffer from constipation. Photo / iStock

Hi Sandra, I suffer from constipation. Is there anything you can recommend?
Anonymous, Taupo.

Digestion can be a problem for many people, so thank you for your question.

Constipation is a common problem. According to the Ministry of Health, one in three people have issues. Women are more affected than men and the symptoms can significantly affect quality of life.

Digestive upsets can be caused by a number of reasons, including poor diet, lack of water and a lack of daily fibre (which is common with our modern day diet).

Alongside increasing your water intake (1.5 to two litres per day), fibre such as psyllium husks (Plantago psyllium), more fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet, including plant remedies, and moderate daily exercise can definitely help.

The role of bitter plants in digestion

Bitter plants are a great way of "waking up" the digestive system. It is common knowledge that drinking lemon in warm water is a great way to start the day. This is because it helps to activate your digestive juices in preparation for the food you are going to ingest. Bitter plants will also do this, and more.

Bitter plants activate your taste buds. It's how they signal to your digestive system that you are getting ready to eat. When you taste something bitter, the taste buds begin producing saliva which contain lots of enzymes that help to break down what we're eating.

Once the taste buds have been activated a message is sent to our nervous system that starts a chain reaction, signalling to the body to release the chemicals needed to break down food and absorb the nutrients.

Constipation occurs when there is a lack of bile being produced by the body to help with digestion. The inclusion of bitter plants will help to increase bile production and alleviate digestive discomfort. Bitter plants can also help with soothing flatulence, bloating and can calm an upset stomach.

Globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is one of plant medicine's most bitter plants and has been shown to stimulate bile flow. It can also help fat digestion and bowel regularity. In a study of 208 IBS sufferers who took Globe Artichoke for 2 months, there was a 26.4 per cent reduction in IBS symptoms. Sufferers reported their bowel motions moved toward normal, giving a 20 per cent increase in their quality of life.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) root and leaves both contain active components that support the liver and gallbladder function, in particular stimulating bile flow from the liver. This action is essential in helping to alleviate constipation.

Calendula (Calendula officinalis) is another bitter plant that helps to promote digestion. Calendula has additional anti-inflammatory properties which are beneficial in many digestive issues.

Bitter plants are best taken regularly before each meal. In Europe, many people employ a morning ritual of self-care with a cup of medicinal tea containing bitter liver detoxing herbs to kick start digestion and a good day ahead.

Botanical laxatives such as senna (Cassia senna), cascara (Cascara sagrada), frangula (Rhamnus frangula), rhubarb (Rheum officinale) or aloe (Aloe barbensis and other species) can be very useful in alleviating constipation because they are well tolerated and have a mild action. They are usually taken in the evening and evacuation tends to ensue six to 12 hours after consumption the following morning.

However, they are contraindicated - like all laxatives - when there is colic, in suspected appendicitis or with any undiagnosed abdominal pain. All laxatives are only ever a short term solution and should not be taken on an ongoing basis. The bitter plants discussed above are better suited to normalise digestion long term.

If you find your symptoms do not improve or worsen, please contact your leading healthcare provider.

- NZ Herald

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Sandra is a medical herbalist, medical anthropologist, and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Sandra Clair is the founder of Artemis ( offering New Zealanders a premium range of traditional plant medicine products. She is one of New Zealand’s most highly qualified health professionals in her field, as a Swiss trained medical herbalist and a medical anthropologist (M.A.). Sandra is currently completing a PhD in health science at the University of Canterbury in collaboration with the Chair for Natural Medicine of the University of Zürich, Switzerland.

Read more by Sandra Clair

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