You may take over-the-counter laxatives for constipation or bowel irregularity, but there are many foods and even some herbal supplements that can help keep your digestive system running well, too. Medical professionals recommend diet as the first line of defense to prevent problems with constipation, so it’s important to eat enough of the right foods that can act as natural laxatives.
Plant foods are often thought of as diet food because they're low in calories and high in fiber. Fiber is the part of plant foods that isn’t digestible, so it adds bulk to the stool and helps to move waste through the body, acting as a natural laxative. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are all good sources of fiber. The Harvard School of Public Health recommends adults eat at least 20 to 30 grams of fiber from a variety of foods each day to prevent constipation, as well as to help reduce the risk of many chronic diseases and manage weight.
Best Fiber Foods
Eating more plant foods can be helpful in treating and preventing constipation. Some good choices for higher-fiber grains include bran flakes, oatmeal, whole-wheat breads and barley. All fruits and vegetables provide fiber, but some of the best sources include apples, pears and broccoli, with about 4 grams in an average piece or 1-cup serving. Nuts, seeds and especially legumes are also high-fiber foods. A 1-cup serving of most beans provides more than 10 grams of fiber. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, eating three servings each of vegetables and fruit, two servings of whole-grain foods and one serving of legumes such as lentils, kidney, black, or lima beans will provide about 30 grams of fiber.
Herbs to Try
The University of Michigan Health System lists several herbs that may have a natural laxative effect. These include aloe gel, buckthorn bark, cascara sagrada, cassia, dandelion leaves, psyllium, senna, triphala and turkey rhubarb. Even though they’re naturally derived from plants, some herbs can be harmful in large doses, so when taking any herbal supplements, always follow the dosing instructions provided. It’s also a good idea to discuss them with your doctor because some herbs may have undesirable side effects and interact with medications.
Make sure you're adequately hydrated, with at least eight glasses of water each day. Some people may find drinking hot tea with lemon, chicken broth or a cup of coffee can have a laxative effect. The University of Michigan Health System also recommends trying 1 to 2 tablespoons of its "Constipation Recipe" -- 1 cup of applesauce mixed with 1 cup of oat or wheat bran and 3/4 cup of prune juice -- each evening followed by a cup of water or juice.
- Harvard School of Public Health: Fiber
- Harvard School of Public Health: Fiber Expert Answers to Readers' Questions
- University of Michigan Health System: Natural Laxatives
- American Diabetes Association: Sugar Alcohols
- California Dried Plums: Frequently Asked Questions
- Prebiotin: Fiber Content of Foods
- University of Michigan Health System: Constipation Recipe