Having trouble pooping? You’re not alone. Constipation is an uncomfortable and inconvenient problem for millions of people — including up to 20 percent of the total American adult population (the number who report regularly suffering from constipation despite making efforts to prevent it). (1)
It’s estimated that constipation now accounts for over 2.5 million doctors visits every year, often affecting more adult woman than any other population. While it’s normal to have trouble going to the bathroom every now and then, especially when stressed or traveling, it’s another thing to experience a decrease in quality of life due to poor bathroom “performance.”
In addition to causing trouble in the bathroom, a variety of uncomfortable symptoms that can last throughout the whole day — including bloating, gas, low back pain, and even anxiety or fatigue — generally accompany constipation. Every year, consumers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on laxatives and prescriptions to help treat constipation.
The good news is that constipation is often preventable, and there are many natural constipation relief remedies available that can help improve bowel function if you’re already suffering. Natural constipation relief remedies include drinking warm liquids, taking probiotics, drinking aloe vera and so much more. Continue reading for a number of beneficial constipation home remedies and to learn what may be causing your trouble in the bathroom.
What Is Constipation?
Constipation is defined as having difficulty emptying the bowels, usually associated with hardened feces. In other words it causes slower than normal movement of food waste (stool) through the digestive tract. (2)
The National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases considers someone to have constipation when they produce fewer than three bowel movements a week, or have hard, dry and small bowel movements that are painful or difficult to pass. (3)
What Causes Constipation?
Why might you become constipation? Constipation is usually caused from a combination of different factors, including those related to your diet, level of movement, and also your stress levels. The most common causes causes include eating a low fiber diet, being dehydrated from not drinking enough water, and having unusual amounts of emotional stress.
When constipation occurs, several things often take place within the GI tract: there is slowed movement of stool passing through the colon or not enough stool is being formed, there is delayed emptying of the colon from the pelvis, or a combination of both.
Do you suffer from IBS symptoms? If so, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) could be the cause of your constipation. The abnormal digestive occurrences described above are often attributed to functional digestive disorders including IBS, which can cause persistent constipation along with other symptoms. Functional GI disorders are considered those that cause the digestive system to work an abnormal way, yet without evidence of damage due to a disease. The risk factors listed below also contribute to IBS and functional digestive disorders.
Here are several factors that might be contributing to your constipation: (4)
- Poor diet: Diets high in processed foods, sugar, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, unhealthy fats and synthetic additives can make it harder to produce normal bowel movements.
- Stress: High amounts of stress alters hormone and neurotransmitter production, which has a direct influence on muscle tension, inflammation, enzyme production and overall digestive functioning.
- Inactivity: Exercise helps to increase blood flow, strengthens muscles within the digestive tract and helps control stress.
- Certain medications: Some medications can cause frequent constipation including: antidepressants, antacids, calcium or iron supplements, anticholinergics, anticonvulsants, narcotics and diuretics.
- Imbalance in intestinal flora: Healthy bacteria living in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, called probiotics, help to regulate bowel function. One of the reasons fiber is so important for gut health is because “prebiotic” fiber from plant foods helps probiotic bacteria to thrive.
- Thyroid or hormonal problems: Thyroid disorders, PMS, eating disorders, diabetes and menopause can all contribute to constipation. Other diseases that might contribute to constipation include Parkinson’s disease, spinal injuries or neurological issues that affect nerves in the GI tract.
- Magnesium deficiency: Magnesium is an electrolyte that helps with normal muscle functioning. Too little magnesium in your diet can contribute to muscle tension and also worsen symptoms of emotional stress.
- Bad bathroom habits: For some, rushing the time they spend in the bathroom and sitting in an uncomfortable position on the toilet can contribute to bowel movements that don’t feel complete.
- Poor sleep, jet lag and traveling
- Older age: Sometimes older adults lose interest in food (because of things like food tasting differently, trouble chewing and not having energy to cook), which means they stop consuming enough fiber and calories, and therefore digestion slows down. (5)
Common Constipation Symptoms
The most common signs and symptoms of constipation include:
- Producing fewer-than-normal bowel movements. Keep in mind that “fewer than normal” will differ from person to person. There is not necessarily one specific number of bowel movements you should expect to have daily/weekly. Some people go to the bathroom more than one time daily, and others only go every other day on average. The key is to pay attention to your usual habits; if suddenly you are going to the bathroom less frequently than what’s “normal” for you, then you’re likely constipated.
- Stool that is difficult or painful to pass. You might feel pains in your abdomen and need to strain or push.
- Bloating in your abdomen, and often having increased gas.
Facts About Constipation:
- If you have fewer than three bowel movements per week, you are considered to be suffering from constipation.
- Research shows between 16–20 percent of the total North American population suffers from frequent or chronic constipation.
- About one-half of all doctors visits to gastroenterology offices are related to “functional digestive disorders ” that cause constipation.
- Only 34 percent of people with self-reported constipation consult a physician for help, while 35 percent of these individuals use laxatives on their own.
- It’s estimated that the annual expenditure on over-the-counter laxatives in the U.S. is now $800 million.
- 2 percent of women and 1.5 percent of men report using laxatives at least every other day.
- Women experience constipation more often than men do. (6) Some surveys show women become constipated 2–3 times as often as men.
- Older age increases someone’s risk of becoming constipated. The highest risk is for people over 65.
- Among adults over 50, around 10 percent of all men and 20 percent of all women have frequent constipation. In adults older than 70, the rate rises to 21 percent of men and 25 percent of women.
- 60 percent of women report experiencing symptoms of constipation at least weekly, and more than 90 percent monthly symptoms.
- More than 60 percent of women living with frequent constipation report that they have experienced symptoms for more than 10 years.
- Adults should get 22 to 34 grams of dietary fiber a day (depending on their age and sex) in order to help prevent constipation.
- Lower socioeconomic status, rural residency, living in cold climates, and lower education all appear to be risk factors for constipation.
Natural Constipation Relief & Remedies
When discussing the best natural constipation relief remedies, it’s best to break it up into food to eat, foods to avoid, supplements that help and also practices that can make a surprisingly different in constipation relief.
Foods for Constipation Relief:
- High fiber foods – Include high fiber foods like raw fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, ancient grains and seeds in your daily diet. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists the following foods as some of the best sources of dietary fiber: all beans, pulses or legumes, sweet potatoes, apples, pears, berries, prunes, avocado, chia and flax seeds, 100 percent unprocessed grains, broccoli, cooked greens and winter squash. (7)
- Green leafy vegetables – Green vegetables not only contain fiber, they are also a good source of magnesium that can help improve constipation. Because they are very low in calories, have a high water content and are nutrient-dense, they should ideally be consumed daily.
- Prunes and figs – These fruits are high in fiber and tend to have a laxative effect. Several a day can help relieve constipation, but in general be careful not to go overboard with dried fruit since it contains a decent amount of sugar given the small size.
- Warm liquids – Warm or room temperature liquids (as opposed to very cold drinks), especially when consumed first thing in the morning, tend to stimulate digestion. Try some herbal tea, warm water infused with lemon, coffee in moderation or bone broth.
- Water & hydrating liquids – Fiber needs water to pass through the digestive system and form stool. Be sure to add fiber to your diet a little at a time so that your body gets used to the change. Start consuming a higher fiber diet slowly if you are not used to it, and increase your intake of water at the same time to help with absorption and passing (especially if you plan on using fiber supplements). Consuming more fiber without drinking enough can actually make constipation and abdominal pain worse! Drink 8–16 ounce glasses of water every 2 hours while you transition into eating more fiber, than make sure to continue drinking water regularly throughout the day.
Foods that Can Make Constipation Worse:
- “Empty calorie foods”– Foods that have a high amount of calories, but little fiber or nutrients, should be reduced or eliminated. These can include foods reported to be very common in the Standard American Diet such as: cheese, sweetened cereal, chips, fast food, ice cream
processed meats like cold cuts or hot dogs and high sodium frozen foods. (8)
- Fried foods – Trans-fats (commonly only found in fried foods, fast food and fatty packaged products) slow down stool’s transit time through the intestines and essentially “clog up” digestion.
- Alcohol – Because it increases urine production and fluid loss, alcohol is difficult on the digestive system and can make constipation worse. To prevent becoming dehydrated, consume alcohol only in small-to-moderate amounts and drink plenty of water at the same time.
- Pasteurized dairy products – Many people are lactose intolerant and can become constipated from the over consumption of dairy products.
- Refined flour – Refined flour by nature does not contain any fiber and, therefore, will not help with constipation.
- Caffeine – Caffeine has various effects on digestion depending on the person. For some, caffeine can cause increased urine production and sometimes worsen feelings of anxiety and constipation — all symptoms of a caffeine overdose. For other people, it helps improve bowel movements by stimulating muscle contractions. Either way, only plan to drink coffee in moderation. Also, consume enough other hydrating liquids throughout the day to offset dehydration from fluid loss. (9)
Supplements that Help Relieve Constipation:
- Sprouted chia seeds and flaxseeds: High in fiber and healthy fats, plus help to absorb water. Flaxseed oil especially helps to lubricate the colon. Consume about 2–3 tablespoons of seeds (soaked ideally to help release nutrients) daily with water or liquid, and consider taking 1 tablespoon daily of flaxseed oil.
- Psyllium husk: High in fiber and helpful for forming stool. When combined with water or another liquid, psyllium husk swells and produces more bulk, which stimulates the intestines to contract and helps speed the passage of stool through the digestive tract. For adults and children over 12 years of age, mix one tablespoon with 8 ounces liquid once daily.
- Cod liver oil: A traditional remedy used upon waking is taking 1 tablespoon of cod liver oil or flaxseed oil mixed with 8 ounces of fresh pressed carrot juice to stimulate bowel movements.
- Apple fiber: Apples (and pears) contain a special type of fiber called pectin. Pectin is an insoluble fiber that helps the stool become bulky, allowing it to pass through the digestive system easier. Consume about 1–2 teaspoons twice daily.
- Magnesium: Magnesium improves gut motility. Add this supplement in slowly and cut back if it causes diarrhea. Consume about 250 milligrams 2–4x daily.
- Probiotics: Maintaining a healthy intestinal tract is critical for avoiding digestive problems. Take a daily probiotic supplement containing at least 15 billion “live and active” organisms.
- Aloe vera juice: Helps reduce inflammation and improve the frequency of bowel movements. Take 1/4 cup twice daily while adjusting the amount based on symptoms.
Mind-Body Practices that Help Prevent Constipation:
- Exercise: Physical activity increases muscle activity in your intestines, so try to fit in more movement and formal exercise most days of the week. Exercise can especially be helpful in the morning for getting the digestive system “fired up,” soothing stress and putting you a positive mindset. I recommend trying rebounding, a.k.a. jumping on a mini-trampoline, which can stimulate the bowels and lymphatic system. Light exercise can also support bowel function, including stretching, walking, jogging, yoga, swimming or dancing.
- Managing & reducing stress: Would you believe that 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctors office visits are related to conditions caused by stress? (10) Constipation is certainly one of them! Stress manifests in the body in multiple ways you can’t always feel: increasing muscle tension, increasing levels of “stress hormones” like cortisol, causing blood sugar levels to rise, altering your appetite, getting in the way of normal digestion by changing the gut environment, and affecting the way your thyroid gland and hormones works. Ways to relieve stress include: yoga or stretching (try these yoga tips for constipation), meditation, prayer, spending time outdoors, reading or writing a journal, exercise, warm baths, and using relaxing essential oils.
- Biofeedback: “Biofeedback” practices involve working with a therapist who uses devices to help you learn to relax and tighten certain parts of your body on demand, especially tight or constricted muscles that can become tense when you’re under stress. Learning to relax muscles in your pelvis can help you pass stool more easily when it comes time to go to the bathroom. Biofeedback might not be everybody, but it’s been shown to be very helpful. A typical biofeedback session with a practitioner might involve using a catheter inserted into your rectum to gauge progress, while you perform exercises to alternately relax and tighten your pelvic muscles. (11)
Conventional Treatment for Constipation
The most common ways to relieve constipation include taking fiber supplements and using over-the-counter laxatives. Some people also get prescribed prescription medications to help control bowel movements and regulate digestive functioning, although this is much less common than using inexpensive, widely-available laxatives.
Although laxative teas, solutions and tablets might temporarily help relieve constipation, they can also be overused and cause many side effects. A much safer way to control constipation is through “natural laxatives” such as exercise, a healthy diet and stress reduction. You can also occasionally try tactics like a salt water flush or bone broth fast to help clear things out and get them moving again.
Laxatives are very dangerous when used as a “purging” dieting technique or taken too frequently. How do they work, and why don’t they help solve constipation for good?
Laxatives work by causing the muscles of the GI tract to contract, increasing water absorption or bulking stool so it can move quickly through the colon. The problem is that this often interferes with the renin-aldosterone part of the digestive system, causes abnormal loss of fluid and ultimately weakens muscles needed for bowel movements. The body rebounds after taking laxatives by holding on to all of the available water it can get, which leads to edema (water retention or bloating).
Other health problems associated with laxative abuse include:
- dehydration (fluid loss)
- electrolyte imbalances
- acid/alkaline base changes
- the inability to produce enough digestive enzymes
- edema (water retention)
- dizziness and light-headedness
- damage to the colon and digestive organs
- alternating diarrhea and constipation
- complications with the cardiovascular systems
Precautions Regarding Constipation
Constipation can usually be managed on your own — without the need for a doctor visit, laxatives or prescriptions — but in some cases it’s best to call your doctor.
- If your constipation becomes severe and lasts for more than 3 weeks, visit a professional to make sure an underlying disorder isn’t the cause.
- Also make a doctor’s visit if you notice blood in your stool, a bulging abdomen or signs of an enlarged spleen.
- If constipation occurs along with diarrhea, keep an eye out for signs of food allergies, sensitives or reactions to medications. These can include signs of malnutrition, painful abdominal swelling, skin rashes, brain dog, a fever, fatigue and aches.
Final Thoughts on Constipation Remedies
- Constipation means your bowel movements are happening less often than normal, are hard or painful to produce and contribute to symptoms like a swollen abdomen or bloating and gas.
- Common causes of constipation include a poor diet lacking fiber, dehydration, thyroid disorders, older age, a sedentary lifestyle, medications and stress.
- Natural treatments for constipation include a healthy diet with high fiber foods, drinking more water, exercise, stress reduction, biofeedback training and using helpful supplements such as magnesium and cod liver oil.