Constipation is a common and uncomfortable problem that millions of people suffer from on a daily basis. If you walk into any pharmacy or supermarket you will find hundreds of products dedicated to this issue. Unfortunately, many of these supplements and medications simply treat the symptoms and not the root cause of constipation. Other products actually act to perpetuate the issue and worsen the cycle of constipation.
Not all Constipation is Created Equal
Many people simply think of constipation as a failure to defecate on a regular basis. Let’s define regular: for some people being regular may be once per day or even multiple times per day. For others, every second day might be their version of regular.
Here’s the thing, constipation is not only about stool frequency. What should also be considered is the actual consistency of your regular stool. You should not at any moment have to strain excessively to release your stools. Additionally, you should be defecating more than 3 times per week and it should not hurt to pass a stool (1).
Natural Ways to Help With Constipation
When it comes to being constipated, the reasons vary greatly. For some people, it is symptomatic of a poor diet or an unhealthy lifestyle. For others, however, it can point to a more serious underlying condition that needs greater attention.
Whatever the reason for your constipation there are many natural ways to help prevent and cope with the problem. Without resorting to strange remedies or becoming dependent on harmful laxatives.
Fix it with Fibre
You’ve definitely heard this one before. Fibre is the easy answer to most constipation woes, but what exactly is fibre? Fibre comes from plant-based foods like fruit, vegetables, and grains.
Fibre can be divided into two types: insoluble and soluble. To explain the differences think of an apple. An apple has a tough skin on it’s outside; this skin is representative of insoluble fibre or roughage. Our bodies cannot digest the apple skin but it acts as a brush, cleaning your intestines as it moves through your digestive tract. It also acts to bulk your stool and therefore help to prevent constipation.
The inside of the apple is soluble fibre. It is equally as important as insoluble fibre as it absorbs water and helps to ensure that the stool moving through your digestive tract is softer and larger.
Finally, fibre assists by accelerating the transit time of the stool in the colon, ultimately keeping us regular (2).
Increase your daily intake of both types of fibre by:
- Ensuring that you choose only whole grains like brown rice, oats and brown bread
- Increase your daily intake of fibrous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower etc.
- Increase your daily intake of fresh fruits
- Adding seeds like flax and chia seeds to breakfast and salads
Water, Water and More Water
Where fibre goes, so should fluid. This tip is perhaps the most important, (3) as increasing your fibre without increasing fluid can lead to a worsening of constipation.
Did you know that most of us are chronically dehydrated? Even suffering from slight dehydration can lead to constipation (4). After digestion, the waste from the food we have eaten makes its way down to our colon. If we are dehydrated our bodies try to absorb extra fluid from the waste, leaving a hard stool that will be more difficult and uncomfortable to pass.
Combat this by ensuring that you drink an adequate amount of fluid throughout the day. Women should ideally be drinking an average of 8-11 cups of water per day, and men 11-16 cups based on body weight and activity level (5).
If you struggle to drink ordinary water and want to avoid extra calories try adding lemon to your water for a fresh taste.
One of the reasons that older people are more likely to suffer from constipation is that as they get older they are less and less physically active. Exercise is not only good for ensuring great cardiovascular health or good muscle tone, but also very necessary for ensuring healthy bowel function (6).
Now we’re not necessarily talking about hours in the gym, it turns out that as little as a 15-minute brisk walk can help with keeping things more regular. The key is for your heart rate to be elevated as this ensures an increased blood flow throughout the body, especially beneficial to our digestive system (7).
Oil and Fat
If you suffer from frequent or intermittent constipation, have a long hard look at your diet and evaluate your current intake of healthy fats and oils. If you are following a low-fat diet and hardly ever incorporate fats into your meals it could be that they are the missing ingredient.
When we eat fat our gall bladder releases a substance called bile. Bile is responsible for emulsifying the fat (breaking up the fat) so that our bodies can effectively absorb it.
Here’s where it helps with constipation, in addition to emulsifying fats, bile also acts as a trigger for peristalsis. Peristalsis is the name used for the muscular contractions of our digestive tract, which essentially pushes the food and the food waste throughout the tract (8). It goes without saying then, that a diet low in healthy fats could potentially slow this process down and worsen digestive issues like constipation.
Prunes (dried plums) are perhaps one of the oldest and most effective solutions to help with ongoing constipation. Prunes are effective as they contain a specific fruit alcohol called sorbitol that acts as a natural laxative (9).
Best of all for most people there are no detrimental side effects associated with eating prunes on a daily basis. They are a safe and effective preventative measure. The only people who might have to practice caution with this specific home remedy may be those who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, as the fruit sugars could be an irritant.
For best results try to incorporate between 3 and 5 dried plums into your diet on a daily basis, an added bonus is their high antioxidant content.