Approximately 15 percent of Americans suffer from constipation -- a condition characterized by dry, hard stools or fewer than three bowel movements per week, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Because it affects so many people, constipation is described as one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints in the United States. Although you may be constipated for a number of reasons, Cleveland Clinic identifies a lack of fiber in the diet and disruptions in a normal dietary schedule as the main causes of constipation.
Boost Your Fiber
Fiber is your first line of defense against constipation. Fiber adds bulk to the stool. This softens it, making it easier to pass through the colon. Even though fiber is so important for a healthy digestive system, the average American consumes between 10 and 15 grams of fiber each day -- about half of the recommended amount of 20 to 35 grams. If you suffer from chronic constipation, gradually increase your fiber intake by including fiber-rich foods like beans, bran cereal, shredded wheat, pears, apples, raspberries, prunes, broccoli, sweet potatoes, peas and spinach in your diet. Increase fiber intake gradually to avoid uncomfortable side effects, like bloating and gas. Although fiber supplements supply you with fiber, they do not contain vital vitamins and minerals that fiber-rich foods offer, so you should not rely on them to meet your fiber needs.
Ditch the Package
In this era of expediency, many Americans rely on the convenience of packaged and processed foods. The refining process used to make these convenience foods removes most the natural fiber. This leaves you with something that is high in carbohydrates but lacking in the fiber that will help move your bowels. So limit packaged and processed foods, as well as foods that contain little to no natural fiber, such as ice cream and cheese.
When it comes to relieving chronic constipation, what you drink is just as important as what you eat. Cleveland Clinic recommends drinking two to four extra glasses of water per day, for a total of 10 to 12 8-ounce glasses. Drinking warm water or herbal tea with lemon, especially in the morning, may also help get things moving. Avoid beverages that contain caffeine, like coffee and soda, which can dehydrate you and make constipation worse. Milk may cause constipation in some people, so it's best to avoid it while you're constipated.
Opt for Omega-3s
Omega-3 fats help lubricate the intestine, providing a smooth surface and making it easier for stool to pass. Regular consumption of omega-3s may help reduce chronic constipation. Dietary sources of omega-3s include salmon, tuna, halibut, nut oils, hemp oil and flax oil. You can also get a high dose of omega-3s through fish oil supplementation, but talk to your doctor before beginning a new supplement regimen.
- University of Washington Women's Health: Constipation
- National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: Constipation
- Cleveland Clinic: Constipation
- Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: Constipation
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Constipation
- U.S. News Health: The 5-Step Constipation Solution
- MedlinePlus: Constipation
- MedlinePlus: Fiber
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Omega-3 Fatty Acids