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Unclog Your Plumbing: Chinese Medicine and Chronic Constipation

Manifesting as difficulty passing stools and/or going several days without a bowel movement, constipation is so common in America that few people recognize it as a disorder. Stemming from diets low in fiber and high in meat, the condition is so widespread that our bathrooms serve as our libraries. However, you would be hard pressed to find books and magazines in an East Asian bathroom.

Ideally, we should have daily bowel movements, best when it comes first thing in the morning. Stools should pass quickly with little straining. They should be smooth, a few inches long, light-brown in color. Constipation arises due to slow intestinal motility. After a long period of accumulation, stools can become hard, dry, and compacted. Over time, chronic constipation can lead to hemorrhoids, poor vitamin absorption in the large intestine, and increased risks of colon cancer.

Burdock Kimpira
2-person serving
Ingredients: 1' burdock root, equal amount of carrots
Peel burdock root, cut into Julienne matchsticks about 2 inches long; soak in water for 10 minutes. Cut carrot to same size. In a frying pan, add 1 tbsp of oil and stir fry burdock for 2-3 minutes over a medium flame. Add carrots and dried red pepper and stir fry until carrots and burdock are soft. Add 1 tbsp each of sugar and cooking wine, and 2 tbsp of soy sauce and mix until the liquid evaporates.
While Chinese medicine offers several means of treating acute constipation (sudden onset), these methods are best administered in consultation with a trained practitioner due to the risks involved. Therefore, the rest of this article will deal with establishing regularity in instances of chronic constipation.

Chinese medicine generally believes that constipation stems from heat that dries the intestines. Therefore, treatment seeks to cool heat, moisten the bowels, increase motility, and soften stools. Much of this can be achieved through adding foods to your diet. Try increasing fibrous material, such as bananas, figs, apples, spinach, pears, mulberries, cabbage, sprouts, peas, soy beans, and burdock root (see a recipe for Japanese kimpira below). These foods help bulk up stools, thereby stimulating intestine walls and encouraging the involuntary muscle motions that help push solid waste material through your system.

Sesame Congee
Individual serving
Ingredients: 1oz black sesame seed, 1 tbsp sugar
Grind sesame seeds into course powder. Add with sugar into 4oz of warm water. Stir until it thickens
Foods with natural oils such as walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, and sesame seeds (especially the black variety) help moisten the intestines so that stools pass more easily. Black sesame is especially easy to use in that you can sprinkle it over all kinds of foods. You can try a black sesame paste (available in oriental food stores, or see a less-tasty recipe below) before bed; it not only helps with bowel movements, but promotes restful sleep as well.

Miso Soup
3 person serving
Ingredients: 3 tbsp miso paste, 8oz of tofu, ¼ cup of wakame (Japanese seaweed), 1 tbsp of dashi (stock)
Boil dashi in 3 cups of water. Add tofu, and boil for one minute. Add the seaweed. Reduce heat to low and briskly stir the miso paste in.
A common modern approach also includes increasing the “good” bacteria that inhabit the intestines. This particular flora helps to break down food and produce vitamins that are absorbed into the blood stream through the large intestine. Miso (fermented bean paste, see a soup recipe below), acidophilus, dairy yogurt, and foods with high chlorophyll (wheat grass, micro-algae, alfalfa sprouts) content all help in this regard.

Besides adding these foods to your diet, you can increase motility with the following exercise: gently rub your lower back and sacral region in a counter-clockwise motion a hundred times. This action stimulates several acupuncture points and encourages intestinal motility.

Finally, a last word about laxatives: while they help promote bowel movements, your body begins to rely on them after long-term use. Even several common Chinese herbs such as senna leaves (fan xie ye) and rhubarb (da huang) have laxative action, but are best avoided as a means of achieving regularity.