Constipation: Castor Oil to the Rescue?

Constipation: Castor Oil to the Rescue?

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By Catherine Morgan



The inner workings of the gut may not be your typical conversation starter – unless you’re someone who regularly deals with gut issues, such as a gastroenterologist, colon hydrotherapist, or nutrition practitioner. But with an estimated one in seven UK adults suffering with constipation at any one time (and up to one in every three children)* – coupled with the potential health implications of this uncomfortable affliction – it is perhaps time to put aside our national embarrassment of toilet talk.


Signs and Symptoms


Constipation may mean different things to different people – depending on the person’s perceived ‘normal’. For some, normal is once per day, while for others it’s a few times per week. But a commonly used medical definition for constipation is fewer than three bowel movements per week*. It’s not just about a change in frequency though – there are additional signs to look out for: stools that are hard, dry, or painful to pass; abdominal pain, distention, or discomfort; straining; and/or a feeling of incomplete emptying.

 

Whilst constipation is often temporary and usually resolved with some simple dietary and lifestyle tweaks, it can become a chronic problem – specifically if it has been present for at least 12 weeks out of past six months.*

 


Health Implications


The consequences of constipation go beyond the acute and uncomfortable symptoms of abdominal pain, nausea, distension or discomfort, and poor appetite – it can also lead to general malaise and a lack of energy, as well irritability and mood changes.


Nutritional therapist and naturopath Magda Jenkins sees the wider effects of constipation in her own clients. “I find that a lot of people with constipation are depressed, their mood is very low because toxins are not leaving the body and it’s affecting everything,” she says. “The microbiome changes as well…and I’ve also seen lymphatic stagnation – so anything like swelling and feeling a sense of ‘puffiness’.” Jenkins, who specialises in women’s health, says that hormone imbalance is a big one too. “I work with hormones quite a lot, and I see that oestrogen is not getting excreted from the body [when there is constipation],” she says. “So, women might end up with symptoms such as heavy periods.”

 

Since chronic constipation may point to an underlying medical issue – and can lead to complications such as faecal impaction, haemorrhoids and rectal prolapse if left untreated – it’s important to speak to a GP if symptoms persist.


Simple Strategies

 

The solution to a sluggish bowel will often depend on its underlying cause. For example, better hydration might benefit someone who isn’t drinking enough fluids, whilst movement and exercise could be an appropriate strategy for someone with a sedentary lifestyle. Similarly, some extra fibre in the form of fruits, veggies, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds may be enough to get things moving if the cause is simply an unhealthy, nutrient-deficient diet. And if the trigger is psychological or emotional (e.g. fear, anxiety, stress), rather than physical, this will need to be addressed, too.


Castor Oil to the Rescue?

 

Castor oil has been traditionally used as a natural remedy for constipation, and there is at least some research to support its use for this uncomfortable problem. 3 It is castor oil’s main fatty acid – called ricinoleic acid – that has been credited for the oils constipation-busting effects, by promoting the contraction of the smooth muscles of the intestinal tract and thereby pushing the stool onwards and outwards.

 

For Jenkins, castor oil is an important remedy in her practitioner toolbox for promoting regular bowel movements in constipated clients – and she likes to use it on herself, too. “What I really love about castor oil is that is does so much more than promoting regular bowel movements and alleviating constipation,” she says. “It basically energises the detoxification pathways… and brings movement to any area that needs healing.”

 

 

Jenkins says that people with constipation usually have sluggish detoxification pathways, and that [from a naturopathic viewpoint] their livers aren’t working optimally – so she recommends using castor oil packs externally. “Depending on the severity of the constipation, I would recommend using them twice per week,” she says. “And I would advise to put a pack over the liver, but also extend it over the abdomen too”. She adds that this is a great lifestyle recommendation as it’s a good opportunity for clients to watch a movie or read a book, and to relax and create some time for themselves.

 

But it isn’t only adults that may benefit. “I work a lot with postnatal clients as well,” Jenkins says. “And when they tell me their babies are constipated, I recommend abdominal massage with castor oil, and this can have wonderful – and quick – results.”

 

In addition to castor oil, Jenkins might recommend other dietary and lifestyle strategies for dealing with constipation – but she points out that it really depends on the cause. She says she would always address a client’s diet, and may suggest more fibre and better hydration, if needed. Then there’s the microbiome, which may need to be rebalanced; and also liver and gallbladder support. “I also find that many people are holding onto things,” says Jenkins. “So, it’s about finding out, what are you holding on to? And what are you afraid of releasing?’. And also finding other ways to move the energy within the body – so it could be exercise and it could be abdominal massage, which can be effective as well.”

 

Constipation isn’t something to be embarrassed about, nor is it something to ignore. It’s far better to have an uncomfortable conversation than an uncomfortable bowel, and to find strategies to get things moving again. It’s just a matter of getting to the bottom of the problem – literally.

* References
1. Constipation | NHS inform
2. Constipation: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment (patient.info)
3. An examination of the effect of castor oil packs on constipation in the elderly -
PubMed (nih.gov)

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