If you suffer from constipation, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the company of 42 million Americans, or 15 percent of the U.S. population. Constipation, which is defined as having fewer than three bowel movements per week or having only dry, hard stools, is one of the most common gastrointestinal problems. A low fiber diet is the leading cause of constipation, so the first line of defense against the condition is to increase your fiber intake. If you’ve been following a high fiber diet and you still experience constipation, there are a few more steps you should take.
Fiber can’t do its job without access to adequate amounts of liquid. Drinking water and other liquids, like soups and fruit juices, may make help plump up the fiber in your digestive tract, making it more effective in normalizing bowel movements. In addition, constipation is directly related to dehydration in the colon. When you don’t drink enough water, your body pulls water out of your digestive tract to stay adequately hydrated. As a result, the colon becomes dehydrated and stools are harder to pass. Your personal history, health and activity level all affect the amount of fluid you need, but as a general rule, drink at least 64 ounces of non-caloric liquids, like water and herbal teas, per day.
If you’re eating enough fiber and drinking enough water and you’re still suffering from constipation, try adding omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. According to registered holistic nutritionist Yuri Elkaim, omega-3 oils help lubricate your intestines so that stools are easier to pass. The richest source of omega-3s is fish oil, although flax oil and hemp oil contain the fatty acid, as well. Dietary sources of omega-3s include salmon, halibut, sardines, tuna, herring, flaxseeds, soybeans, pumpkin seeds and walnuts.
Keep It Regular
Finding relief from constipation is not just about what you eat, it’s how you eat. Getting on a regular eating schedule can help normalize your digestion and may allow you to have a bowel movement at the same time every day since eating stimulates the colon. The National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse recommends spending some time in the bathroom 15 to 45 minutes after eating breakfast. Give yourself enough time in the bathroom so that you don’t feel stressed or rushed, and never ignore the urge to go. Ignoring the urge can make constipation worse.
Don't Be Lax
If you’ve tried diet and lifestyle changes and are still constipated, your doctor may recommend a laxative. While laxatives may provide temporary relief, they are not a long-term solution to chronic constipation. Bulk-forming laxatives, which absorb water in the intestine and make the stool softer and easier to pass, are considered the safest. Other types of laxatives include stimulants, which trigger muscle contractions in the intestines, and stool softeners, which give the stool moisture in an attempt to make it easier to pass. If you abuse laxatives, your digestive system may become dependent on them, making constipation worse in the long run. Don’t use laxatives without consulting with your doctor.
- Temple University School of Medicine: Constipation
- NHS Choices: Constipation - Treatment
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Constipation
- Better Health Channel: Constipation
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Constipation
- U.S. News & World Report: The 5-Step Constipation Solution
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-3 Fatty Acids