Bowel movements allow for the emptying of waste and toxins from your digestive system. While there’s no required or accepted number of times that a person should move their bowels, most researchers agree that three times a week to three times a day is normal.1 However, many people suffer from constipation, which affects about 16 of 100 adults in the United States at any given time.2 Constipation is generally described as moving your bowels less than three times per week. This may also be accompanied by:
- Hard, dry, or lumpy stools
- Stools that feel painful or are difficult to pass
- Dissatisfaction or otherwise feeling like you did not pass a complete stool2
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.3. Constipation is correlated with a 2-fold increase in colon cancer risk.32 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 constipation relief:
Avoid processed foods
Eat more fiber
Drink more water
Home Remedies for Constipation
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.
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 enzymatically processed 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.
To help alleviate constipation choose foods that are less processed. Choose wheat bread instead of white bread. 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
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.6
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.
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.7
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.8
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.
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.33 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 laxatives. Laxatives are the most common remedy for constipation. Learn more about some common natural laxatives for constipation below.
Natural Laxatives and Foods to Help with Constipation
A wide range of fruits, vegetables, seeds, and other foods offer laxative effects while providing you with necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to support your overall digestive health Here are some of the most common natural laxatives for kids and adults.
1. Psyllium Seed Husks
Taken from the husks of Plantago ovata seeds, psyllium is a soluble fiber and is a common ingredient in fiber supplements.9 When ingested, psyllium acts as a bulk-forming laxative, meaning it works by increasing the size and moisture of stools, allowing for easier passage through the large intestine.10
In one study, participants were given psyllium, wheat bran, a combination of the two, or a low-fiber control for two weeks. The results found that psyllium had a significant effect on the weight, texture, and moisture of the stools.11
Typical doses for constipation range from 2.5 grams to 30 grams per day in divided doses.
Prunes work two-fold to help your digestive health. They are high in fiber, but they also have a natural laxative effect. In one study, 54 participants were given a test prune juice (consisting of prune puree, plum juice concentrate, water, and fructose). The participants drank 125 milliliters of the prune juice twice a day for two weeks while keeping a daily record of fecal frequency, difficulty in passing stools, stool consistency, and any gastrointestinal symptoms. The results of the study found that the participants reported fewer days with difficulty in defecation, suggesting that the prune juice had a laxative effect.12
3. Aloe Vera
Aloe vera has long been used to help treat digestive issues, including constipation, diarrhea, and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. The aloe leaf offers a rich combination of compounds that have been used as topical treatments for burns, scratches, and skin inflammation. The similar compounds may help to treat inflammation in the digestive system.13 Aloe vera is considered the most biologically active member of the Aloe species with more than 75 identified active constituents, including vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, and polysaccharides.14
Anthraquinone glycosides found in aloe vera have been studied extensively for their laxative effects. A study on rats with irritable bowel syndrome also showed beneficial effects of aloe vera as an antioxidant and spasmolytic (relieving muscle spasms).15
However, avoid aloe vera containing aloin. Aloin extracts have been found to potentially cause colorectal cancer in rats.16
4. Chia Seeds
Chia seeds are a rich source of antioxidants, dietary fiber, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, which is an essential component to general health and well-being.17 Along with high soluble fiber content, chia seeds can help to soften stools and make them easier to pass. When combined with any liquid, chia seeds become gel-like and expand, allowing for optimal stool formation.18
Flaxseeds come from the Linum usitatissimum plant and are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, lignans (which offer antioxidant properties), and both soluble and insoluble fiber.19
Flaxseed has also been found to have dual effectiveness for both diarrhea and constipation. Researchers studied the mucilage and oil for their laxative and antidiarrheal effects in mice. Results of the study found that oral administration of flaxseed mucilage and oil caused an increase in wet feces in mice. In terms of antidiarrheal effects, flaxseed oil was found to reduce castor-oil induced diarrhea and intestinal secretions in the mice.20
Probiotics refer to the good bacteria that exist primarily in your gut and balance out the more harmful bacteria. Maintaining that balance supports good digestive health and may help to prevent constipation and diarrhea.21
The potential for probiotics to help relieve constipation and support healthy digestion has been extensively studied. In a systematic review and meta-analysis of 14 randomized controlled trials regarding probiotics and constipation, researchers found that probiotics effectively reduced total gut transit time by about 12.5 hours while increasing the frequency of stools by about 1.3 bowel movements per week, particularly for the Bifidobacterium lactis strain. Probiotics were also found to improve stool consistency.22
Probiotics can be taken in the form of a supplement or consumed in probiotic-rich foods. Common probiotic foods include:
General rule of thumb suggests that you should consume at least 1 billion colony forming units (CFUs) of probiotics. Most doses range from 1 billion to 10 billion CFUs, though doses as high as 100 billion CFUs are not uncommon. Furthermore, children and infants may take doses below 1 billion CFUs.24
7. Coconut Water
Coconut water is best known for helping you hydrate while providing a wealth of electrolytes. A study comparing coconut water with regular water and carbohydrate-electrolyte sports drink found that the coconut water offered the same comparable hydration abilities but with less nausea and fullness and no upset stomach issues.25
Coconut water is also rich in calcium, vitamin C, potassium, and manganese. Compounds like folate, niacin, and riboflavin also help to boost its natural hydrating effects.26 Furthermore, one cup of coconut water contains about 2.6 grams of fiber, accounting for 11 percent your daily recommended value.27
8. Olive Oil
Initial research has found that olive oil may provide a variety of potential health benefits, including its role as a cardioprotective agent.28
Growing research also suggests that olive oil may act as a laxative. In a four-week double-blind, randomized, controlled trial, 50 patients who had constipation were assigned to receive either mineral oil, olive oil, or flaxseed oil in initial doses of 4 milliliters per day. Using the Rome III criteria, which evaluated symptoms that included incomplete evacuation, anorectal obstruction, and lumpy or hard stools, the researchers found improved scores with all three oils. Five of the six symptoms of constipation were reduced in both mineral oil and olive oil groups, while flaxseed oil seemed to only improve the consistency of stools and the frequency of evacuation. This suggests that olive oil and flaxseed oil are as effective as mineral oil in relieving symptoms of constipation.29
In a consensus statement on the treatment of obstructed defecation and chronic constipation, olive oil was found to help soften stools when the intake exceeded the small intestine’s absorptive capacity.30
Olive oil contains healthy fats that may help to lubricate and smooth the insides of the bowels. Olive oil may also help stools hold more water. A tablespoon of olive oil taken on an empty stomach can help to relieve constipation in adults.31
Summary: What to Do for Constipation
You first steps in relieving constipation and promoting overall digestive heaIth 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.