Herbs to Help Bowel Movements

Constipation is the one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints in the United States, affecting approximately 42 million people. You are constipated if you have fewer than three bowel movements per week or if you have stools that are hard, dry and difficult to pass, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Dietary changes are often enough to relieve constipation, but incorporating some herbal remedies may help move things along.

Not Just for Sunburns

Aloe juice or aloe latex, which is a yellow, bitter liquid that comes from the skin of the aloe leaf, is a powerful herbal stimulant laxative. Stimulant laxatives work by irritating the lining of the intestinal wall, stimulating muscle contractions that help propel stool along the intestines. Because it is so powerful, aloe juice can cause painful abdominal cramping, so the University of Maryland Medical Center recommends that you try gentler herbal laxatives first.

Senna for the Short Term

Senna is FDA-approved as a nonprescription laxative. The herb is commonly used to treat constipation and to clear out the bowels prior to diagnostic testing, such as a colonoscopy. Senna is also used for irritable bowel syndrome and hemorrhoids. Senna contains chemicals called sennosides, which irritate the lining of the bowel, producing a laxative effect. Taking senna orally is an effective treatment only for short-term constipation, according to MedlinePlus. The herb should not be used long-term. Prolonged use of senna may cause electrolyte imbalance, muscle weakness, liver damage and laxative dependency.

Cascara Bark Gets Things Moving

Cascara bark or Cascara Sagrada has the same, but slightly milder, effect as senna. Cascara bark contains anthraquinones, which are substances that give it its color and its laxative effect. When an individual consumes the bark, specific anthraquinones called cascarosides react with the natural bacteria in the large intestine producing a stimulating effect that promotes bowel movements, according to the NYU Langone Medical Center. Cascara bark is available over-the-counter in tablet, capsule or liquid form. Do not use cascara bark if you have an intestinal blockage, inflammatory bowel disease, appendicitis or abdominal pain.

Don't Be Lax with Flax

Flaxseed comes from the flax plant, which is an annual herb. Because of its high fiber content, flaxseed may be used to treat constipation. Unlike aloe, senna and cascara bark, flaxseed acts as a bulk-forming laxative. Bulk-forming laxatives pull water into the intestines, increasing the size and softness of the stool, making it easier to pass. The University of Maryland Medical Center notes that flaxseed differs from flaxseed oil, which does not contain fiber and therefore is not used to treat constipation.

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