Causes of constipation
Constipation usually stems from at least one of the following three causes:
Constipation can be very uncomfortable
- Slow movement of stool through the bowel
- Difficulty completely emptying the bowel due to pelvic disorders
- Having a disorder called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Lifestyle factors can also increase a person's risk for constipation. Lack of fiber, fluids, and exercise can also contribute to constipation. Taking certain medications that slow down bowel movement can also contribute to constipation.
Other health problems that can contribute to constipation include:
Many treatments exist to treat constipation and attempt to get the bowels moving again. One nonprescription treatment is castor oil. This oil is known to have a laxative effect on the body, an effect that causes a bowel movement.
However, castor oil has a very specific laxative effect that may make it ineffective and even harmful for a person with constipation. Before using castor oil to treat constipation, a person should consider several factors.
What is castor oil?
Castor oil is a type of vegetable oil that comes from the beans of the castor plant. The oil is pale yellow in color and available at most pharmacies and health food stores. Castor oil is sometimes used in the making of soaps, waxes and polishes, painting, plastics, and medicines.
Why might castor oil improve constipation?
Castor oil is known as a stimulant laxative. When a person drinks the oil, it stimulates the small intestine to start moving more. This increased motion will make stool start to move through the intestine so it can be eliminated.
People can usually buy castor oil for a low price, making it an attractive alternative to some higher-priced medications.
However, stimulant laxatives are considered some of the harsher laxatives, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. This is because they cause the intestines to sometimes move, squeeze, and contract harder than they normally would.
For this reason, castor oil should only be used as an occasional constipation reliever. People may want to try using aids that soften the stool instead of laxatives first, such as olive oil.
In addition to its use in relieving constipation, castor oil is also used as a medication that can make people vomit. For this reason, it should be taken with caution. A person could take it for constipation and become nauseous.
How much castor oil should be used?
Castor oil is recommended as a short-term solution to constipation
Castor oil has a very distinct taste that is sometimes described as similar to products like petroleum jelly.
The oil is very thick, which can make it hard to swallow. For this reason, some manufacturers will add the oil to other preparations to make it easier to drink.
A person should always read the label of their castor oil preparation carefully to ensure that they are taking the proper dose for constipation. A typical dose might be around 15 milliliters, which is about half an ounce or three teaspoons.
The strong smell and taste mean that many people will mix it with another drink to make it easier to consume. Examples include:
- Fruit juice
- Soft drink
How long does it take castor oil to work?
Castor oil typically causes a bowel movement to occur in about 2 to 3 hours. However, it may take up to 6 hours to work in some people.
Due to the timing of when castor oil works, most doctors don't recommend taking it before bedtime.
Risk factors and considerations
Certain groups of people shouldn't take castor oil due to safety concerns. For example, pregnant women shouldn't take castor oil.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration classify castor oil as a Category X medication. This means the oil has been shown to cause risk to the fetus or fetal abnormalities if taken. The risks to a pregnant woman far outweigh the benefits of taking castor oil.
A person also shouldn't take castor oil if they have any of the following symptoms:
- Rectal bleeding
- Strong, sudden stomach pain
- Symptoms of appendicitis
- Symptoms of a blocked intestine, such as inability to pass gas and vomiting
Laxatives like castor oil are meant as a short-term solution to a problem. Taking castor oil all the time to have a bowel movement can have serious consequences.
One of the most serious is that the bowels stop working like they should because they're so dependent on castor oil to help them move. This can lead to long-term constipation.
Other side effects of long-term use can include:
- Too little potassium in the body
- Loss of important nutrients because the stool passes too quickly
- Muscle weakness
- Swelling of the bowel
People who experience these side effects should stop taking castor oil immediately and see a doctor.
Castor oil for children and babies
Castor oil shouldn't be used in children younger than 6 years of age. If a child is between the ages of 6 and 10, caregivers should contact the child's pediatrician before giving castor oil to ensure it is safe for the child.
While castor oil may help reduce constipation, there are often safer and gentler methods, especially for children. Examples could include adding more fiber into a child's diet or taking a stool softener.
Sometimes children also have a fear of going to the bathroom in public places or even having a bowel movement. In this case, it's important to treat the underlying cause and not just the constipation.
When to see a doctor
If a person has been experiencing constipation for more than a week, they should seek medical attention. A doctor can work to identify the potential underlying causes of constipation and suggest additional changes.
Constipation can be part of a group of symptoms that signal a medical emergency. An example is a blocked intestine, where stool stops moving and backs up in the intestines. This increases the chances that the intestines could tear.
A blocked intestine also causes very uncomfortable symptoms, like bloating and stomach pain. Symptoms that require emergency attention from a doctor include:
- Bleeding from the mouth or rectum
- Nausea that won't go away or gets worse
- Sudden, unexplained muscle weakness
While constipation is a common occurrence, it shouldn't be a constant occurrence. Most people's constipation will go away with diet and lifestyle changes or with occasional medication.
A high-fiber diet is recommended for a healthy lifestyle
There are many lifestyle changes that can help a person prevent constipation. Examples of these include:
- Increasing the amount of dietary fiber. A person should get between 22 and 34 grams of fiber per day, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Dietary fiber sources include beans, whole-grain cereals and breads, fruits, and vegetables.
- Drinking plenty of water. Water will add bulk to the stool, making it easier to pass and stimulating the bowels to move.
- Exercising regularly. Taking a walk 30 minutes a day or making an effort to get up and move around can help the bowels start to move, reducing constipation.
- Never ignoring the urge to use the bathroom. People should allow themselves enough time to have a bowel movement without straining.
Other treatments for constipation
Castor oil is just one of many laxative medicines used to treat constipation. Examples of other medicines include:
- Bulk-forming agents, such as FiberCon or Metamucil
- Lubricants that make stool easier to pass, such as Fleet enemas
- Osmotic agents, such as Milk of Magnesia or Miralax
- Stool softeners, such as Colace
Using the same tips for prevention can also help to treat constipation.
If constipation is severe and leads to a blocked intestine, surgery may be necessary. That's why doctors try many different methods to treat constipation to prevent the condition from becoming more serious.