Americans spend nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars a year trying to deal with constipation. It’s a side effect of certain drugs, a complication of some medical conditions, and a common complaint of aging, but constipation can also be caused by dehydration, a low-fiber diet and/or a sedentary lifestyle. Here’s what you can do to keep things moving naturally.
1. Eat more plants
“An increase in fiber can improve constipation,” says Emily Haller, R.D.N., a dietitian with the University of Michigan Health System’s Division of Gastroenterology. “Fiber is found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds.”
But how much do we need? “Most studies suggest that dietary fiber in the range of 20-30 grams per day is ideal,” says William Chey, M.D., professor of gastroenterology at the University of Michigan. If you, like most Americans, are not reaching this goal, ramp up the amount of your fiber intake slowly to avoid discomfort. There may be added benefits to getting fiber from fruit.
“Many fruits contain sugars like fructose and sorbitol that can increase the frequency and soften the consistency of stools” says Chey. Chey and Haller particularly recommend dried plums (prunes), kiwi, blackberries, mangos and peaches.
“Eating too much fiber without drinking enough water could worsen constipation, so drinking adequate fluid is also important,” says Haller. While how much fluid any individual needs varies, the general recommendation is 64 ounces per day.
“Urine color can be a good indicator of hydration status,” says Haller. “Light or clear indicates a person is drinking enough fluid. If urine is dark I would recommend increasing intake by one to two glasses and see if that helps.” Water is the beverage of choice, but other fluids, such as fruit and vegetable juices and clear soups will also help the fiber in your diet work better.
“Some people find drinking a warm beverage in the morning helps decrease their constipation,” says Haller, “and caffeine can have a laxative effect, so drinking coffee or tea in the morning may be effective.”
3. Try yogurt
Cultured and fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, unpasteurized sauerkraut, and Gouda cheese contain beneficial microorganisms known as probiotics. A 2014 scientific review of all available studies concluded that probiotics may help with constipation.
“Probiotics may improve gut transit time, stool frequency, and stool consistency,” says Kevin Whelan, professor of dietetics at King’s College London and one of the authors of the study, “but we need better quality studies to be sure, and also more studies on different strains of probiotics, as many act differently in the body.”
Research on Bifidobacterium lactis, found in some yogurts, kefir, buttermilk and unpasteurized fermented vegetables, seems particularly promising.
4. Get Moving
“Movement is essential for regularity,” says Haller. Aerobic exercise helps stimulate contraction of the intestines, moving food along more quickly. This faster transit time also means less time for water to be pulled from the stool, so it stays softer and easier to pass.
Jogging, swimming, or dancing are great, but even walking 10 to 15 minutes at a time several times a day can help, as can stretching and yoga. An after dinner walk is fine, but wait an hour after a big meal before taking on any particularly vigorous exercise; drawing blood away from the digestive tract to fuel the heart and muscles can actually cause constipation.
5. Limit Triggers
According to Chey and Haller, some people find red meat and dairy constipating, and bananas (typically thought of as a good source of stool-softening soluble fiber) can actually be constipating for some people. Pay attention to your body to figure out what works best for you, or seek out the help of a registered dietitian for tips on making the changes you need to get things moving.
(Reprinted with permission from Environmental Nutrition, a monthly publication of Belvoir Media Group, LLC. 800-829-5384. www.EnvironmentalNutrition.com.)