Constipation affects 10-20% of the population, most of whom struggle to find relief outside of using laxatives.
While chronic constipation is a symptom of underlying gut dysfunction, keeping the bowels moving and pooping while identifying and treating the underlying root cause is a critical part of healing from it.
Dietary, supplement and lifestyle interventions like eating more fiber, drinking enough water, avoiding “trigger” foods, moving your body regularly, and adding foods and supplements that act like natural laxatives might not solve the problem completely, but they can definitely assist in the short-term to alleviate the frustration that comes with being constipated.
How foods and supplements can provide constipation relief
There are many ways in which foods and supplements can keep things moving:
Bulking agent - soluble and insoluble forms of fiber add volume to stools and stimulate intestinal motility.
Osmotic agent - stimulates bowel movements by drawing water into the intestine, making stool softer and easier to pass.
Stimulant or motility agent - acts on the intestinal mucosa and stimulates peristalsis.
Bacterial and microbiome balance - a healthy balance of gut bacteria plays an important role in overall gastrointestinal health and maintaining healthy bowel movements.
The most scientifically proven foods and supplements for constipation relief
Fiber is essential for a healthy digestive tract and for normal bowel movements. This is related to fiber’s ability to act as a bulking agent, increasing stool weight and is the main fuel for our gut microbiome.
Current guidance is to aim for between 25-40 grams of fiber per day from natural sources. My favourite options are chia and flax seeds, berries, brown rice, quinoa, oatbran, leafy green vegetables and fruits.
Psyllium husk can be helpful for some people, which is the key ingredient found in Metamucil. It’s best to buy psyllium husk alone and avoid products like Metamucil because it contains other unnecessary ingredients that are not great for your gut health.
Magnesium is a mineral that acts as a natural osmotic agent, drawing water into the stool, making them softer and easier to pass. This is why magnesium is commonly found in commercial laxative products. And while it’s difficult to consume sufficient dietary forms of magnesium to achieve a laxative effect, increasing your intake will certainly help.
The best sources of magnesium include dark leafy green veggies like spinach, pumpkin seeds and legumes.
Alternatively, using the supplement form of magnesium can help greatly with getting things moving in the short-term. You can buy many different types of magnesium as a supplement, but I have found the best for constipation relief is magnesium citrate. Other types of magnesium like magnesium oxide have a stronger laxative effect, but will often result in unwanted side effects like cramping, urgency and watery diarrhea.
Vitamin C is traditionally viewed as a vitamin for helping the immune system, but unabsorbed vitamin C has an osmotic effect, like magnesium, that draws water into your intestines and softens the stool. Given that your body only requires around 40mg of vitamin C daily, reaching this saturation point to achieve sufficient unabsorbed vitamin C is pretty easy - just one fresh kiwi fruit provides over 160mg. Having said that, for those who are chronically constipated, we usually start at 1,000mg of vitamin C two times per day to get things moving, so getting this from food alone can be a challenge.
Kiwi is definitely my favourite option as it not only has lots of vitamin C but also plenty of fiber and is typically well tolerated by those with digestive problems. Other great sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, dark leafy vegetables like spinach, as well as broccoli.
Sorbitol is a slow-metabolising sugar alcohol, often used as an artificial sweetener. If you’ve ever wondered why chewing-gum packets warn against eating the whole packet in one serve - the answer is sorbitol’s laxative effect. Like vitamin C and magnesium, sorbitol acts as an osmotic agent, drawing water into the stool which softens it and makes it easier to pass.
Prunes contain sorbitol, which explains their reputation for getting things moving quickly. Other natural sources of sorbitol include apples, apricots, pears, cherries, peaches and dates. Note that because sorbitol is a poorly absorbed sugar, it can ferment in the digestive tract, feed bacteria and produce excess levels of gas as well as bloating and cramping, so approach sorbitol with caution.
A diet that includes a balance of healthy fats can make a big difference to your digestion. This is because dietary fat stimulates the gallbladder to release bile, which in turn stimulates intestinal motility and our gastrocolic reflex that facilitates bowel movement. Basically, eating more fats can make you poop. My favourite sources of healthy fats come in the form of oily fish like salmon and mackerel, nuts and seeds, avocado, coconut products and olive oil.
Aloe vera is a form of anthraquinone, an organic compound found in some plants and the main active ingredient in herbs used to relieve constipation. Anthraquinones act as a stimulant laxative by directly affecting the intestinal mucosa and peristalsis and have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years and, in more recent history, as over-the-counter laxatives.
While there are a number of different herbs that contain anthraquinones, Aloe Vera is the only food-type variety available. Many people find Aloe Vera juice to provide a helpful kick-start to their morning bathroom routine.
PROBIOTIC RICH FOODS
Given how important the microbes in our gut are to nearly every aspect of our health, it should come as no surprise that a rich and diverse microbiome is an essential part of avoiding constipation. Although we still have lots to discover, most studies have focussed on the beneficial effects of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus species in improving bowel movements per week and softening stools to make them easier to pass.
Adding in naturally probiotic-rich foods into our diet is a great way to boost the health of our digestive system and keep things moving. Some of my fermented favourites are kefir, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut and kimchi.
You can of course take probiotics as a supplement, however not all are created equally so don’t expect any random brand you find at the supermarket to have a big impact. Ideally stick to probiotic recommendations made from your healthcare provider.
There’s obviously a lot more to the story for most sufferers of constipation than simply healing it with dietary interventions. But, they are typically the best place to start and can often be a helpful stepping stone to more significant interventions. In my experience, anyone who drinks enough water, exercises and tries these foods without success, requires a more functional approach to identifying and treating the root cause of their constipation.
If this sounds like you, please schedule a free introductory consultation so we can chat further about getting to the root cause of your constipation.