Causes, Symptoms and Natural Treatment of Constipation; Chronic constipation is infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools that persists for several weeks or longer.
Constipation is generally described as having fewer than three bowel movements a week.
Though occasional constipation is very common, some people experience chronic constipation that can interfere with their ability to go about their daily tasks. Chronic constipation may also cause excessive straining to have a bowel movement and other signs and symptoms.
Treatment for chronic constipation depends in part on the underlying cause. However, in some cases, a cause is never found.
What Are the Symptoms of Constipation?
You may have:
- Few bowel movements
- Trouble having a bowel movement (straining to go)
- Hard or small stools
- A sense that everything didn’t come out
- Swollen belly or belly pain
- Throwing up
Why Does Constipation Happen?
Some causes of constipation include:
- Antacid medicines containing calcium or aluminum
- Changes in your usual diet or activities
- Colon cancer
- Eating a lot of dairy products
- Eating disorders
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis
- Not being active
- Not enough water or fiber in your diet
- Overuse of laxatives
- Problems with the nerves and muscles in the digestive system
- Resisting the urge to have a bowel movement, which some people do because of hemorrhoids
- Some medications (especially strong pain drugs such as narcotics, antidepressants, or iron pills)
- Underactive thyroid (called hypothyroidism)
What Should I Do If I Am Constipated?
Take these steps:
- Drink two to four extra glasses of water a day, unless your doctor told you to limit fluids for another reason.
- Try warm liquids, especially in the morning.
- Add fruits and vegetables to your diet.
- Eat prunes and bran cereal.
- If needed, use a very mild over-the-counter stool softener like docusate or a laxative like magnesium hydroxide. Don’t use laxatives for more than 2 weeks without calling your doctor. If you overdo it, your symptoms may get worse.
When Should I Call My Doctor?
Call your doctor right away if you have sudden constipation with belly pain or cramping and you aren’t able to pass any gas or stool.
Natural Constipation Relief & Remedies
When discussing the best natural constipation relief remedies, it’s best to break it up into food to eat, foods to avoid, supplements that help and also practices that can make a surprisingly different in constipation relief.
Foods for Constipation Relief
- High fiber foods– Include high fiber foods like raw fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, ancient grains and seeds in your daily diet. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists the following foods as some of the best sources of dietary fiber: all beans, pulses or legumes, sweet potatoes, apples, pears, berries, prunes, avocado, chia and flax seeds, 100 percent unprocessed grains, broccoli, cooked greens and winter squash.
- Green leafy vegetables– Green vegetables not only contain fiber, they are also a good source of magnesium that can help improve constipation. Because they are very low in calories, have a high water content and are nutrient-dense, they should ideally be consumed daily.
- Prunes and figs – These fruits are high in fiber and tend to have a laxative effect. Several a day can help relieve constipation, but in general be careful not to go overboard with dried fruit since it contains a decent amount of sugar given a small size.
- Warm liquids– Warm or room temperature liquids (as opposed to very cold drinks), especially when consumed first thing in the morning, tend to stimulate digestion. Try some herbal tea, warm water infused with melon, coffee in moderation or bone broth.
- Water & hydrating liquids– Fiber needs water to pass through the digestive system and form stool. Be sure to add fiber to your diet a little at a time so that your body gets used to the change. Start consuming a higher fiber diet slowly if you are not used to it, and increase your intake of water at the same time to help with absorption and passing (especially if you plan on using fiber supplements). Consuming more fiber without drinking enough can actually make constipation and abdominal pain worse! Drink 8–16 ounce glasses of water every 2 hours while you transition into eating more fiber, than make sure to continue drinking water regularly throughout the day.
Foods that Can Make Constipation Worse
- “Empty calorie foods”– Foods that have a high amount of calories, but little fiber or nutrients, should be reduced or eliminated. These can include foods reported to be very common in the standard American Diet such as: cheese, sweetened cereal, chips, fast food, ice cream
processed meats like cold cuts or hot dogs and high sodium frozen foods.
- Fried foods– Trans-fats (commonly only found in fried foods, fast food and fatty packaged products) slow down stool’s transit time through the intestines and essentially “clog up” digestion.
- Alcohol– Because it increases urine production and fluid loss, alcohol is difficult on the digestive system and can make constipation worse. To prevent becoming dehydrated, consume alcohol only in small-to-moderate amounts and drink plenty of water at the same time.
- Pasteurized dairy products– Many people are lactose intolerant and can become constipated from the over consumption of dairy products.
- Refined flour– Refined flour by nature does not contain any fiber and, therefore, will not help with constipation.
- Caffeine– Caffeine has various effects on digestion depending on the person. For some, caffeine can cause increased urine production and sometimes worsen feelings of anxiety and constipation — all symptoms of a caffeine overdose. For other people, it helps improve bowel movements by stimulating muscle contractions. Either way, only plan to drink coffee in moderation. Also, consume enough other hydrating liquids throughout the day to offset dehydration from fluid loss.
Supplements that Help Relieve Constipation
Sprouted chia seeds and flaxseeds: High in fiber and healthy fats, plus help to absorb water. Flaxseed oil especially helps to lubricate the colon. Consume about 2–3 tablespoons of seeds (soaked ideally to help release nutrients) daily with water or liquid, and consider taking 1 tablespoon daily of flaxseed oil.
- Psyllium husk: High in fiber and helpful for forming stool. When combined with water or another liquid, psyllium husk swells and produces more bulk, which stimulates the intestines to contract and helps speed the passage of stool through the digestive tract. For adults and children over 12 years of age, mix one tablespoon with 8 ounces liquid once daily.
- Cod liver oil:A traditional remedy used upon waking is taking 1 tablespoon of cos liver oil or flaxseed oil mixed with 8 ounces of fresh pressed carrot juice to stimulate bowel movements.
- Apple fiber:Apples (and pears) contain a special type of fiber called pectin. Pectin is an insoluble fiber that helps the stool become bulky, allowing it to pass through the digestive system easier. Consume about 1–2 teaspoons twice daily.
- Magnesium:Magnesium improves gut motility. Add this supplement in slowly and cut back if it causes diarrhea. Consume about 250 milligrams 2–4x daily.
- Probiotics:Maintaining a healthy intestinal tract is critical for avoiding digestive problems. Take a daily probiotic supplement containing at least 15 billion “live and active” organisms.
- Aloe vera juice:Helps reduce inflammation and improve the frequency of bowel movements. Take 1/4 cup twice daily while adjusting the amount based on symptoms.
Mind-Body Practices that Help Prevent Constipation
- Exercise:Physical activity increases muscle activity in your intestines, so try to fit in more movement and formal exercise most days of the week. Exercise can especially be helpful in the morning for getting the digestive system “fired up,” soothing stress and putting you a positive mindset. I recommend trying rebounding, a.k.a. jumping on a mini-trampoline, which can stimulate the bowels and lymphatic system. Light exercise can also support bowel function, including stretching, walking, jogging, yoga, swimming or dancing.
- Managing & reducing stress:Would you believe that 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctors office visits are related to conditions caused by stress? Constipation is certainly one of them! Stress manifests in the body in multiple ways you can’t always feel: increasing muscle tension, increasing levels of “stress hormones” like cortisol, causing blood sugar levels to rise, altering your appetite, getting in the way of normal digestion by changing the gut environment, and affecting the way your thyroid gland and hormones works. Ways to relieve stress include: yoga or stretching (try these yoga tips for constipation ), meditation, prayer, spending time outdoors, reading or writing a journal, exercise, warm baths, and using relaxing essential oils.
- Biofeedback:“Biofeedback” practices involve working with a therapist who uses devices to help you learn to relax and tighten certain parts of your body on demand, especially tight or constricted muscles that can become tense when you’re under stress. Learning to relax muscles in your pelvis can help you pass stool more easily when it comes time to go to the bathroom. Biofeedback might not be everybody, but it’s been shown to be very helpful. A typical biofeedback session with a practitioner might involve using a catheter inserted into your rectum to gauge progress, while you perform exercises to alternately relax and tighten your pelvic muscles.
Conventional Treatment for Constipation
The most common ways to relieve constipation include taking fiber supplements and using over-the-counter laxatives. Some people also get prescribed prescription medications to help control bowel movements and regulate digestive functioning, although this is much less common than using inexpensive, widely-available laxatives.
Although laxative teas, solutions and tablets might temporarily help relieve constipation, they can also be overused and cause many side effects. A much safer way to control constipation is through “natural laxatives” such as exercise, a healthy diet and stress reduction. You can also occasionally try tactics like a salt water flush or bone broth fast to help clear things out and get them moving again.
Laxatives are very dangerous when used as a “purging” dieting technique or taken too frequently. How do they work, and why don’t they help solve constipation for good?
Laxatives work by causing the muscles of the GI tract to contract, increasing water absorption or bulking stool so it can move quickly through the colon. The problem is that this often interferes with the renin-aldosterone part of the digestive system, causes abnormal loss of fluid and ultimately weakens muscles needed for bowel movements. The body rebounds after taking laxatives by holding on to all of the available water it can get, which leads to edema (water retention or bloating).
Other health problems associated with laxative abuse include:
- dehydration (fluid loss)
- electrolyte imbalances
- acid/alkaline base changes
- the inability to produce enough digestive enzymes
- edema (water retention)
- dizziness and light-headedness
- damage to the colon and digestive organs
- alternating diarrhea and constipation
- complications with the cardiovascular systems
Precautions Regarding Constipation
Constipation can usually be managed on your own — without the need for a doctor visit, laxatives or prescriptions — but in some cases it’s best to call your doctor.
- If your constipation becomes severe and lasts for more than 3 weeks, visit a professional to make sure an underlying disorder isn’t the cause.
- Also make a doctor’s visit if you notice blood in your stool, a bulging abdomen or signs of an enlarged spleen.
- If constipation occurs along with diarrhea, keep an eye out for signs of food allergies, sensitives or reactions to medications. These can include signs of malnutrition, painful abdominal swelling, skin rashes, brain dog, a fever, fatigue and aches.
Summary on Constipation Remedies
- Constipation means your bowel movements are happening less often than normal, are hard or painful to produce and contribute to symptoms like a swollen abdomen or bloating and gas.
- Common causes of constipation include a poor diet lacking fiber, dehydration, thyroid disorders, older age, a sedentary lifestyle, medications and stress.
- Natural treatments for constipation include a healthy diet with high fiber foods, drinking more water, exercise, stress reduction, biofeedback training and using helpful supplements such as magnesium and cod liver oil.
Sources and References:
Fauci, Anthony S., et al. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 17th ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2011.