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6 Natural Ways to Ease Constipation

6 Natural Ways to Ease Constipation

Before you start straining, try these strategies to find relief.

Everybody poops. How frequently you do so, however, is a bit more personal. Some people empty their bowels a few times a day, while others go only a few times each week. But if you find yourself going less often than you usually do, you may be experiencing constipation—especially if your stools are hard, dry or difficult to pass.

“Constipation is one of the top three most common reasons we see patients in an office setting,” says Alexander Veloso, MD, a gastroenterologist affiliated with Kendall Regional Medical Center in Miami, Florida.

It may be tempting to opt for a quick fix, such as an over-the-counter laxative or stool softener. When used correctly, these remedies can be very effective in relieving constipation but they can also lead to more gas, bloating and other side effects. Complicating matters, routinely relying on laxatives can backfire, causing your digestive system to not work as well on its own.

Making some adjustments to your lifestyle and diet could be a longer-term solution that could help you stay regular. So, before you start straining—or loading up on stool softeners—consider these natural ways to relieve constipation.

Stay hydrated
“Hydration is one of the key treatments and natural remedies for constipation,” Dr. Veloso explains. “If you maintain hydration, you’re less likely to have dry stool that are difficult to pass.”

How much water you need to drink each day depends on a variety of individual factors, such as your size, how active you are and whether or not you have any underlying health issues. Talk to your healthcare provider (HCP) about what amount is appropriate for you.

Keep in mind that other liquids, like naturally sweetened fruit or vegetable juice and clear soups, count toward your daily fluid intake. You may also find that your morning cup of Joe helps you go, but this may have more to do with caffeine. “Caffeine is a stimulant that helps promote having a bowel movement,” says Veloso. Its effects, however, may vary from one person to the next.

Boost your fiber intake
If you’re backed up, cut back on processed foods and focus on fiber. “Fiber provides the bulk in the stool that the body needs to have proper bowel movements,” Veloso says.

Generally speaking, men 50 years or younger should shoot for an intake of 38 grams of fiber per day, 25 grams for women. Men over 50 should try for 30 grams of fiber, while women over 50 should get 21 grams. When in doubt, consult your healthcare provider for the amount that’s best for you. If you’re not getting enough, try gradually adding more fiber-rich foods to your diet, such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and nuts.

“Taking fiber supplements can also be beneficial,” Veloso adds. Be sure to consult your HCP about what product may be appropriate for you and how to use it, as well as overall amounts of dietary fiber you should aim for each day.

Exercise regularly
“Being active is important,” Veloso advises. “We see a lot of constipation especially in patients who are bed-bound, but exercise helps promote gastrointestinal motility.”

In short, exercise helps keep things moving along the digestive tract. If you are sedentary and have a tendency to become constipated, try to increase your activity level. Most adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week, but if you can get closer to 300 minutes of week—or 150 minutes of more strenuous activity—it’s even better.

Keep in mind, this activity doesn’t have to be done in lengthy sessions. Even a short walk offers benefits. It’s also important to talk to your HCP before starting a new exercise regimen and to ask about the types of activities that are safe and appropriate for you.

Take steps to manage stress
Anxiety or emotional upsets may alter how your digestive system functions, affecting how well or quickly food moves through. “Stress can affect the body in so many ways,” says Veloso. It can trigger changes in your bowel habits, inducing diarrhea or bringing on constipation, he cautions. Taking steps to ease stress—including practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation or breathing exercises and getting regular exercise—could also help relieve constipation.

Don’t ignore the urge to go
When nature calls, find a bathroom. Holding in a bowel movement can lead to constipation.

“Many people aren’t comfortable having a bowel movement outside of their house, but it’s a vicious cycle: If you hold it in, by the time you’re home, it can be hard and painful to pass, which compounds the situation,” Veloso explains. “If your body is telling you to do a bowel movement, you have to listen.”

Set a schedule—and stick to it
“Your body likes routines,” Veloso says. This includes having a set time to empty your bowels. In fact, those who struggle with chronic constipation may benefit from bowel retraining, or developing a predictable pooping schedule. A bowel training program is designed to help promote more regular bowel movements by having people adopt certain strategies that encourage them to empty their bowels with greater frequency and regularity.           

Know when to seek help
Unexpected disruptions to your routine or sudden changes in your diet can affect your bowel habits, as can taking certain medications. A variety of health issues can also lead to constipation, including celiac disease, diabetes, pelvic floor disorders, an underactive thyroid, certain neurologic disorders, inflammation associated with diverticular disease or a tumor or other blockage in your intestine.

Be sure to see your healthcare provider if changes to your diet and other lifestyle measures do not relieve your constipation, and seek immediate medical attention if you experience any of the following symptoms, which could signal a more serious problem:

  • Bloody stool
  • Constant abdominal or lower back pain
  • Inability to pass gas
  • Vomiting
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Fever

Sudden or severe changes in your normal bowel habits are another symptom you should not ignore, Veloso advises. He notes that those with a family history of certain gastrointestinal conditions should also ask their HCP if their constipation could be related to a congenital health issue.

In most cases, however, constipation isn’t tied to a serious underlying condition, Veloso advises. The good news is that a few healthy lifestyle adjustments are often all that’s needed to provide relief. 

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

Sources:
Merck Manual. “Constipation in Adults.”
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Constipation”
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Constipation – self-care”
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for Constipation”
Yu-Ming Chang, Mohamad El-Zaatari, and John Y Kao. “Does stress induce bowel dysfunction?” Expert Review of Gastroenterology & Hepatology. Aug 2014; 8(6): 583–585.
American Psychological Association. “Five tips to help manage stress.”
National Institute on Aging. “Concerned About Constipation?”
Mayo Clinic. “Over-the-counter laxatives for constipation: Use with caution.”
Harvard Medical School. “The gut-brain connection.”
International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders. “Bowel Retraining: Strategies for Establishing Bowel Control.”
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Symptoms & Causes of Constipation.”

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