Constipation can be occasional or chronic and may point to a more serious underlying cause. Chronic constipation on its own can cause discomfort and make daily tasks more difficult.1. Constipation is correlated with a 2-fold increase in colon cancer risk.2 Constipation is thought to increase the amount of toxins that the gut is exposed to. To avoid constipation here are 4 lifestyle changes you can make right now for natural constipation relief:
Avoid processed foods
Eat more fiber
Drink more water
Before you ask your doctor for any prescription laxatives or get them over the counter, your first line of defense against constipation should be the following lifestyle changes and home remedies for constipation in adults and kids.
1. Avoid Processed Foods
Processing is the act of breaking down foods which makes them easier to absorb by the body. This strips food of its fiber which provides numerous benefits including preventing and alleviating constipation. Here is a specific example:
If you take a look at the back of a bottle of soda, you will notice that it contains approximately 200 Calories, all of which are from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). High fructose corn syrup is made from corn, a delicious, wholesome, and filling food if eaten off of the cob. When it is converted to HFCS, all the filling fiber is removed and all the starch locked up inside the corn kernels have been broken down into glucose and fructose. Glucose and fructose are sugars that dissolve in water and are absorbed by the body rapidly.
Your body handles 200 calories of corn eaten off of the cob completely differently than 200 calories from high fructose corn syrup. To eat the corn off of the cob requires effort and mechanical digestion from your mouth and stomach and the rest of your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It requires your body to release digestive enzymes to chip away at the starch molecules inside the corn kernel. All of this takes time and burns energy. Sometimes your body doesn’t even digest it completely and passes the unabsorbed corn out the other end.
Unprocessed corn is a whole grain and is filling because of the fiber it contains which also helps you to eat less. 200 calories of corn is more filling than 200 calories of fried corn chips or 200 calories of soda. Eating any of those other foods will leave you feeling less satisfied and still hungry. The fiber in corn has many numerous other benefits:
- Helps you feel full and helps to clean out the gastrointestinal tract as it passes through.
- As corn passes through your body it feeds the probiotic gut flora reside, providing the beneficial probiotic bacteria living inside your gut with a food source.
A growing body of research has found that the Western diet, which is traditionally high in ultra-processed foods, may be detrimental to human health. These ultra-processed foods include industrial formulations made from substances extracted from foods, food constituents, food substrates synthesized in a lab. Along with its contribution to weight gain, the Western diet’s heavy reliance on processed foods has been found to cause significant changes in the natural microbiota, promoting inflammation and metabolic disturbances.3
To help alleviate constipation choose foods that are less processed. Choose wheat bread instead of white bread. For foods to help relieve constipation, integrate snacks full of fiber into your daily routine. Bring an apple or an orange to work for a snack. Instead of eating an unhealthy processed desert like ice cream eat a whole fruit instead. By consuming foods that are less processed and have more fiber you will have more normal bowel movements.
2. Eat More Fiber
Fiber comes in two forms, soluble and insoluble, both of which are essential to supporting your digestive and intestinal health and supporting healthy bowel movements. Soluble fiber helps your stools retain more water, making them softer, larger, and easier to pass through your system. Insoluble fiber contributes more bulk to your stools, allowing waste to pass more quickly through the digestive system. A high-fiber diet can help to support bowel movements and reduce your chances of becoming constipated.4
This has been shown in numerous studies. In one study, researchers performed a cross-sectional analysis of 20,630 men and women, age 22-97 years. About 30 percent of these participants were vegan or vegetarian. The results of the analysis showed that the vegan and vegetarian participants had a higher frequency of bowel movements, potentially an effect of having high intake of fluids and dietary fiber.5
In a meta-analysis, researchers evaluated 1,322 potentially relevant articles on the effects of dietary fiber intake on constipation. Five randomized controlled trials showed a statistically significant increase in the number of stools per week. In all studies, dietary fiber was found to have a distinct advantage over placebos in improving stool frequency in subjects, though there were varying results for stool consistency.6
Fiber can also play an important and crucial role as a prebiotic. Prebiotic foods help to feed your existing gut bacteria, allowing it to grow and thrive. While not all prebiotics comprise dietary fiber, many foods rich in dietary fiber are prebiotics. This is primarily true for oligosaccharides, a type of carbohydrate whose molecules comprise a small number of monosaccharides.
Oligosaccharides are known to resist digestion in the stomach and small intestines. This is an important trait as it allows the oligosaccharides to reach the large intestine, which is where the majority of the human microflora are located. For example, studies have found that foods containing inulin, lactulose, oligofructose, and resistant starch may stimulate Bifidobacterium, a genus of beneficial bacteria. This suggests that consuming high-fiber foods can help your gut bacteria, which can promote overall digestion and gastrointestinal health.39
The American Dietetic Association recommends that adult women get at least 25 grams of fiber in their daily diet, while adult men should get at least 38 grams of fiber. Unfortunately, the average American adult only gets about 15 grams of fiber per day.8
Getting enough fiber can seem difficult, but you can find it in a variety of foods. Leafy greens, including spinach, kale, and cabbage, offer the densest amount of fiber per serving, but other foods high in fiber include:
- Beans and lentils
- Whole-wheat breads
- Sunflower seeds4
To make the process easy, try to:
- Eat at least 1 serving of fruit or vegetable per day
- Bring fruits, nuts, and seeds with you to work or class to snack on
- Substitute foods made from processed grains with whole grains
- When shopping, purchase fresh fruits and vegetables instead of junk food
You can also take a fiber supplement to complement your diet and ensure that you get enough fiber every day. If you are adding fiber to your diet, it’s a good idea to start slow to avoid sudden excess gas and bloating. Gradually increasing your fiber intake over time gives your gut time to adjust.
3. Drink More Water
Aside from helping to soften your stools, water keeps your entire body hydrated and ensures proper metabolic functions. Although the general states that you should drink 8 eight-ounce glasses of water per day, there’s actually no scientific evidence to back this up. Many studies actually suggest that this is too much water for the average healthy adult.9
In a meta-analysis, researchers looked at 24 articles to assess the effects of water and general fluid intake on functional constipation in children and adolescents. Several of these studies found a correlation between intestinal constipation and low fluid intake.10
Water may also help if those looking to increase their fiber intake. In one study, 117 subjects with chronic functional constipation were divided into two groups. Both groups consumed a standard diet containing about 25 grams of dietary fiber per day for a period of two months. However, while one group was allowed to drink fluids as desired, the other group was required to drink two liters of mineral water per day.
Researchers monitored compliance throughout the study and assessed the results in terms of laxatives used and frequency of bowel movements. Average fluid intake was considerably greater in the latter group, with the first group only drinking about 1.1 liters of water. While both groups did show statistically significant increases in stool frequency and decreases in laxative use, the results were generally greater and more pronounced in the group that drank two liters of mineral water per day. This suggests that increasing fluid intake with your dietary fiber may help to improve stool frequency.11
Your actual water needs can vary, especially based on your activity levels and the amount that you sweat. While there’s no hard and fast rule, the best way to dictate your drinking needs is to follow your thirst. You will naturally feel thirsty as your water levels decrease.12
Your urine can also tell you if you are getting enough water. Drink enough that you are urinating once every few hours. Your urine should also look clear or pale-yellow. A good time to do this is during working hours. You can reduce your water intake after dinner so that you’re not up all night urinating.
Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages. These act as diuretics which can force greater urine production and water loss. If you’re dehydrated your body will absorb more moisture from the contents of your colon, drying out and hardening your stools.
Exercise and general physical activity have long been believed to help promote bowel movements. In a South Korean study, researchers evaluated the effects of regular aerobic exercise on colonic transit time for 60 psychiatric inpatients. Subjects were randomly assigned to either maintain ordinary daily activities or take part in a 12-week group aerobic exercise program led by an instructor. This program involved 10 minutes of warm ups and stretches, 40 minutes of exercise, and 10 minutes of cool down for three days per week. Researchers recorded colonic transit time along with various health and fitness-related parameters before and after the exercise program. By the end of the study, the exercise group showed a statistically significant reduction in colonic transit time, which suggests that regular exercise may help intestinal motility and promote regular bowel movements.13
Walking, running, and strength training are all excellent promoters of bowel movements. Exercise aids with mechanical digestion and breakdown of food, helping you to pass stools.14 Abdominal workouts are the best for constipation as the contraction of abdominal muscles promotes the flow of food through the digestive system.
If lifestyle changes have not helped you then the next step is to start using home laxatives. Natural laxatives for kids and adults are the most common remedy for constipation.
Summary: What to Do for Constipation
You first steps in natural constipation relief and promoting overall digestive health include:
Avoid processed foods
Eat more fiber
Drink more water
Try to aim for about 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day to maintain digestive health and relieve constipation. Remember to avoid foods that cause constipation like processed foods and intake more foods to help with constipation like prunes. If symptoms of constipation continue, consult your doctor.