The Fastest Ways to Relieve Constipation, according to a Dietitian
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Being constipated can be stressful and super uncomfortable. Most of us have been there before and it's no fun feeling backed up. Constipation is technically defined as three days without a bowel movement for most people—but this varies widely from person to person.
Some people have bowel movements several times a day, while others only have them a few times a week. Because of this, many health professionals prefer to define constipation as when one strays significantly from their normal bathroom pattern, or when bowel movements are hard and may require straining. Regardless of the specifics, it's uncomfortable and when it happens, you want relief as quickly as possible.
The good news is, a few adjustments to your diet can help relieve symptoms and keep constipation at bay. Drinking plenty of water, getting in some movement and eating a high-fiber diet is the best way to relieve constipation, without relying on medication like laxatives or other stool softeners. While they may seem like a good idea when you're at your most uncomfortable, using these medications can catapult you into a tricky cycle where you flip-flop from one extreme to the other.
Instead, try these few simple daily tweaks to help relieve constipation naturally.
Increase Your Water Intake
Dehydration is one of the most common reasons for constipation. When you are dehydrated, there's less water available to help soften your stool and as a result, it becomes hard and difficult to pass. On the other hand, when your body is properly hydrated, water will be absorbed into the colon, which keeps your stools soft and easy to pass.
Aim to drink at least 64 ounces of water—about 8 (8-ounce) glasses. While this can sound like a lot for some people, breaking it down to drinking a cup of water an hour makes it more doable.
Bubbly seltzer water can add to the bloating and discomfort, so skip that for now. Ditto for gulping your water or drinking it through a straw.
Though research is mixed, many studies, like the 2022 research in the journal Hindawi, suggest that physical activity should be a part of the treatment for constipation.
While researchers have yet to nail down the best type of exercise to prevent or relieve constipation, many have shown that cardio exercise—like walking and running—might have positive effects on constipation. Others, like the 2018 study in the World Journal of Clinical Cases indicate that a combination of strength training and cardio can help, too.
Researchers aren't quite sure why exercise helps constipation, but they feel there could be several contributing factors of it that help get your bowels moving. One of these may simply be due to the increase in heart rate and breathing rate, which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS)—and when the SNS gets moving, so do other things.
Ironically, stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which helps us relax, is also important. A 2022 study in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that practicing deep breathing, which stimulates the PNS, also helped ease constipation symptoms.
Another way physical activity might get things moving is regarding your gut's microbiome. There is some research, like the 2022 review article in Sports Medicine, that suggests that regular moderate physical activity benefits your gut's microbiome. And a healthy microbiome has been shown to help ease constipation, according to a 2019 review in Frontiers in Medicine.
Load Up on Fiber
The key nutrient to look out for to keep things moving through the digestive system is fiber. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that helps with digestion and is found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds.
Dietary fiber speeds up the transit of stool through the digestive system, which helps keep you regular. The daily recommendation for dietary fiber is about 25 grams for women and 31 grams for men per day, per the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
To help move things along in your gut, aim to eat anywhere from 2 to 5 servings of high-fiber foods. But choose wisely! A plate full of whole-wheat pasta or a big salad may not necessarily be your top choice when you're already feeling super full and uncomfortable. Instead, go for high-fiber foods that deliver the biggest dose of fiber in the smallest form. Think chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, almonds, raspberries and avocados.
Here's how much fiber one serving of each of these foods delivers, per the USDA:
Chia seeds: 2 tablespoons, or about 1 ounce, has 10 grams of fiber
Flaxseeds: 2 tablespoons has about 4 grams of fiber
Walnuts: 1 ounce, which is about 1/4 cup or 12 to 14 walnut halves has 2 grams of fiber
Almonds: 1 ounce, or about 23 almonds, has 4 grams of fiber
Raspberries: 1 cup has about 9 grams of fiber
Avocado: half of an avocado has 7 grams of fiber
The soluble fiber found in flaxseeds and chia seeds bind with water to create a gel-like consistency that helps to loosen things up in the gut and get things moving. You can use chia seeds as is but to unlock the nutrients in flaxseed, you'll want to go with ground flaxseed versus whole flaxseed. Mix them into foods like oatmeal, smoothies, yogurt, sauces and waffle mix, or try our Healthy Gut Tonic with Chia.
Walnuts, almonds and pecans have more fiber than other nuts and are also rich in magnesium, which helps the digestive muscles relax. When the digestive muscles become too tense or tight due to constipation, bowel movements have a hard time passing. Consuming magnesium-rich nuts helps relax the muscles, allowing the stool to pass.
It's important to remember that as you increase your fiber intake, you must also increase your water intake. Fiber and water work together to keep your stool bulky and soft, so it can move easily through your system. This helps stool pass through without needing to strain, which can lead to hemorrhoids or other complications.
To help prevent constipation from becoming a regular occurrence, be sure to incorporate all kinds of fiber-rich foods into your daily diet.
Many factors can trigger constipation, like being out of your usual routine, having a low-fiber intake, not drinking enough water and inactivity. Chronic constipation leads to bloating, reduces appetite and can cause complications, such as impaction and hemorrhoids. Incorporate plenty of fiber-rich foods into your diet, drink plenty of water and exercise regularly to help keep things moving along in your gut. If constipation persists without much relief, call your healthcare practitioner.