Constipation is a common problem characterized by infrequent or hard, difficult to pass stools. Causes vary, however increasing both dietary fiber and physical activity can often help prevent and relieve this gastrointestinal complaint. Fiber supplements and stool softeners can also help avert constipation, but sometimes the associated discomfort may warrant a more immediate solution. Although not quite instant, some laxatives and other home remedies can be used for quick relief. However, ongoing constipation needs a doctor's evaluation as it may be a symptom of a more serious condition.
Many types of foods have been touted as home remedies for treating constipation. While they do not provide instant relief, high fiber foods such wheat bran, chia seeds, flax seeds and psyllium husk soak up water and add bulk to the intestinal contents, moving fecal matter more quickly through the bowels. A well-planned diet rich in high fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds helps to prevent and treat constipation.
Prunes and prune juice are also a well-known laxative. But other juices can help as well, presumably due to their sorbitol and fructose content -- naturally occurring sugars that can pull more fluid into the gut. A study involving adults with constipation, published in the 2008 issue of "The Internet Journal of Nutrition and Wellness," provided participants approximately 1 cup of apple or plum juice, or apple juice mixed with metamucil -- a bulk-forming laxative. Immediate relief -- defined as 24-hour relief of constipation -- was noted in 25 percent of those taking plain apple juice, in 50 percent of participants who drank apple juice with metamucil and in 58 percent of those who drank plum juice.
Enhancing Gut Movement
Other home remedies stimulate peristalsis, which is the wavelike movement of the intestinal muscles that pushes food through the bowels. While these diet and exercise strategies may not work as quickly as stimulant laxatives, they can be a more gentle and natural approach. Exercise and eating both stimulate peristalsis, and the impact of these interventions is particularly helpful in the morning, according to a 2008 review in "Continence UK." Eating breakfast, consuming frequent meals, exercising in the morning or increasing overall physical activity can help stimulate the bowels to empty. Hot liquids and coffee are also touted to help stimulate the intestines to move, although limited research is available to confirm the effectiveness of this intervention.
Short-term use of over-the-counter laxatives can also treat constipation. Laxatives either soften the stool or hasten the movement of the intestinal contents out of the bowel. Stool softeners including Colace or Docusate, and bulk-forming laxatives such as Metamucil or Citrucel -- because they soften and increase stool volume -- may take a few days to work. Some laxatives, however, may offer more prompt relief. Osmotic laxatives such as Miralax or Milk of Magnesia may work within a few hours, pulling enough water into the intestines to make the stool soft and loose. Stimulant laxatives including Senokot or Dulcolax cause the intestinal walls to contract, causing a bowel movement. These may work within 6 to 8 hours, rectal suppositories of this type of laxative can work within the hour. Lubricant laxatives make bowel movements slippery and easy to pass. Castor oil and mineral oil are home remedies of this type of laxative, and brand names include Zymenol and Fleet.
In general, the use of an enema should be used when other treatment options have proven ineffective, and under physician guidance. Introducing fluid into the rectum, particularly when combined with a lubricant or an additive that keeps fluid in the intestines, can relieve constipation within minutes. A common over-the-counter product is a Fleet enema, but there are homemade versions that use salt water -- and countless home enema recipes that ingredients such as coffee, milk, molasses and lemon juice. Since even proper use of commercial enemas can cause diarrhea, cramping and discomfort, it's wise to discuss planned enema use with your doctor and use commercial versions unless you have cleared your chosen home remedy with your doctor. Enema overuse risks dehydration or electrolyte imbalance, and improper use can lead to infection, so talk to your doctor before using an enema to ensure it's safe for you.
While constipation can be usually prevented and managed by a high fiber diet and exercise, symptoms of cramps, bloating and abdominal discomfort may occur when the fiber content of your diet increases rapidly. These symptoms tend to subside as the body expels hard stool and bowel movements become more regular. Since fiber uses extra fluid to work, it helps to drink plenty of water or other fluids as fiber intake is increased.
Constipation may require medical evaluation. See your doctor if you have persistent constipation, or if your constipation is accompanied by severe pain, blood in your stool or weight loss. While occasional use of laxatives or one-time use of an over-the-counter enema is safe for most people, certain medical conditions -- such as kidney or heart disease -- pose a greater risk of side effects with certain laxatives and enemas. See your doctor for advice on laxative or enema use, or if you need guidance on how to improve your lifestyle to prevent constipation.
Is This an Emergency?
- American College of Gastroenterology: Constipation and Defecation Problems
- Daily Med: Saline Enema
- National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: Treatment for Constipation
- Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics: The Therapy of Constipation
- The Internet Journal of Nutrition and Wellness: A Naturalistic, Controlled, Crossover Trial of Plum Juice Versus Psyllium Versus Control for Improving Bowel Function.
- American Family Physician: Treatment of Constipation in Older Adults