Progressive, wave-like contractions of longitudinal and circular smooth muscles in the bowel are called peristalsis. These involuntary movements cause digestive contents to move downward in a spiral fashion. Sluggish bowel movements are known as constipation. Reasons for constipation include a low fiber diet, dehydration, lack of exercise and the effects of some medications. Occasional constipation can be remedied by lifestyle changes and better eating habits. Discuss any persistent changes in bowel habits with your health care professional.
Dried prunes, raisins, apricots, apples and pears contain soluble fiber, which takes on a soft texture when exposed to fluids during digestion and helps to soften stools. MedlinePlus recommends drinking 2 to 3 liters of fluid a day to help promote bowel movements, unless you have a medical condition that limits fluid intake. Peristalsis occurs reflexively in response to distention; eating a serving of dried fruits with warm liquids may produce a bowel movement within a few hours. Soluble fiber is also found in oats, berries, chia seeds, carrots, beans and sweet potatoes.
Vegetables and Grains
Vegetables such as celery, zucchini, romaine lettuce, green beans, cauliflower and cabbage contain large amounts of insoluble fiber, a type of fiber that adds bulk to stools, acts as a broom in the intestines and triggers peristalsis. The University of Maryland Medical Center suggests 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day to relieve constipation and improve regularity. The sudden addition of large amounts of dietary fiber may cause increased flatulence and bloating, so add fiber gradually to avoid this side effect. Other good sources of insoluble fiber are whole grains, bran, nuts, flaxseed, potato skins and tomatoes.
Fenugreek contains soluble fiber and is a traditional herbal remedy for constipation, although no scientific studies have proven it to be safe and effective for the treatment of any condition. Nutritionist Phyllis Balch, author of "Prescription for Nutritional Healing," states that aloe vera has a cleansing effect on the digestive tract and aids in forming soft stools. Take aloe morning and night to trigger bowel movements. Senna leaves and cascara segrada are herbal ingredients in many over-the-counter laxative preparations. These should be used only occasionally or under the advice of your physician.
Probiotics are naturally occurring friendly bacteria that inhabit the bowels. They are found in fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir and kombucha tea, and in cultured foods such as sauerkraut. Italian researchers investigated whether probiotics are useful in the treatment of constipation. In a double-blind study of 300 healthy volunteers who complained of hard stools and abdominal bloating, subjects were randomly treated with either probiotic blends or a placebo for 30 days. By the end of the intervention, treatment groups reported a significant increase in bowel movements over the controls, as well as improved consistency, ease of elimination and less discomfort. The findings were published in the September 2009 "Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology."