Almost everyone has problems with occasional constipation, and approximately 63 million people in North America have persistent constipation problems, according to an April 2004 "American Journal of Gastroenterology" article. Exercising regularly and eating the right foods and drinks can help relieve occasional constipation and promote regular bowel movements. Certain fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods are particularly helpful. However, results are not immediate and vary from one person to another. You may pass stool in a matter of hours, or it could take a few days before your bowels move normally. In some cases, dietary changes may not be enough to relieve constipation and a laxative or other medication may be needed.
Dried fruit helps relieve constipation because it contains a lot of fiber, especially in the skin. This fiber adds bulk to the stool and retains water. Dried fruit also contains various sugars that are not fully digested. These sugars help draw more water into the stool. These effects make bowel movements softer and easier to pass, and help stool move through the intestines more quickly. The best dried fruits to help relieve constipation include apricots, prunes and figs. Prunes are particularly helpful because they contain a natural laxative. A study published in "Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics" in April 2011 found eating prunes daily was more effective than a fiber supplement called psyllium (Fiberall, Konsyl, Metamucil) at increasing weekly bowel movements in people with ongoing constipation.
Whole Grains and Beans
Eating food high in fiber helps bulk up stools and is recommended by the American Gastroenterological Association for the treatment of constipation. When combined with plenty of water and other fluids that the fiber absorbs, the added bulk helps push stool through the bowels more quickly and makes the stool easier to pass because it is softer. It is important to increase fiber intake slowly to avoid bloating and cramping. Oat, wheat, corn and rice bran are all high in fiber. Barley and oatmeal are also good choices. Lima, navy, kidney and other beans incorporated into the diet can also help relieve constipation because of their high fiber content.
Fresh Fruit and Vegetables
Many fruits and vegetables contain high or moderate amounts of fiber that can help relieve constipation. Fruits high in fiber include berries, apples, pears and guava. Vegetables that are particular rich in fiber include chard, broccoli, cauliflower, green peas, artichokes and brussels sprouts. It is important to eat fruits and vegetables with their skins on, as the skin contains most of the fiber. Many fruits are also high in water and sugar content, which can help speed passage of stool through the bowels. Most fruits and vegetables do not contribute to constipation, although bananas and potatoes might.
Water and Other Fluids
Fluids that can help relieve constipation include pear and prune juice. However, it's important not to drink too much at a time as these fruit juices can cause cramping. A small glass, 4 or 5 ounces, once daily is a good starting point -- or as much as your doctor recommends.
Drinking extra water does not relieve constipation in people who are not dehydrated, but staying well hydrated is important to prevent constipation from worsening. The standard recommendation of eight 8-ounce glasses of water daily is typically sufficient, unless your doctor advises you to drink more or less.
Warnings and Precautions
While occasional constipation is uncomfortable, it is generally not harmful. However, sudden or persistent constipation might indicate a medical problem that requires treatment. It is important to see a doctor if you: -- Suffer from frequent constipation. -- Experience moderate to severe pain in your abdomen with constipation. -- Notice large bloating in your abdomen. -- Start vomiting due to constipation. -- Pass bloody or black, tarlike stools. -- Have bowel accidents where your stools leak involuntarily. -- Develop a fever with constipation.
Is This an Emergency?
- American Journal of Gastroenterology: Epidemiology of Constipation in North America: A Systematic Review
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Mild Dehydration: A Risk Factor of Constipation?
- Constipation: Etiology, Evaluation and Management; Steven D. Wexner, Graeme S. Duthie
- Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics: Randomised Clinical Trial: Dried Plums (Prunes) vs. Psyllium for Constipation
- American Gastroenterological Association: Medical Position Statement on Constipation