Tips to Live By

5 Home Remedies for Constipation

Sep. 1, 2023 - Katie McCallum

When you're constipated, there's no ignoring it.

The bloating and abdominal discomfort that result from not passing stool can be uncomfortable, and straining to pass hard stool can be downright painful. It's not long before you're ready to try just about anything to get your bowel movements back to normal.

"There are many old wives' tales of things that help with constipation," says Dr. Neeharika Kalakota, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist. "Castor oil is a popular home remedy, for instance."

It would be great if fixing constipation was as easy as chugging a glass of water spiked with castor oil — as unappetizing as that might sound to most of us. But Dr. Kalakota says the better solution is lifestyle changes that help prevent constipation in the first place.

"Nothing can replace a healthy diet, hydration and exercise," says Dr. Kalakota.

And when you do need more immediate constipation relief, there are a number of over-the-counter medications, mostly laxatives.

Here's how to relieve constipation and when to see a doctor about it:

1. Eat enough fiber

"The No. 1 thing I recommend is altering your diet," says Dr. Kalakota. "Making sure you're eating plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains is essential to preventing constipation."

These foods aren't just healthier sources of energy for your body, they contain fiber — a nutrient key for keeping waste moving through your GI tract and promoting regular bowel movements.

"It's recommended that men get about 30 grams of fiber per day and women get 20-25 grams per day," says Dr. Kalakota.

This may not sound like much, but only about 7% of adults currently meet these daily fiber recommendations, according to the American Society for Nutrition.

High-fiber foods that help with constipation include:

  • Veggies, like squashes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, okra, asparagus, mushrooms, carrots, kale and spinach
  • Fruits, especially kiwis, prunes, avocado, raspberries, blackberries, persimmon, pears, oranges, apricots and apples
  • Whole grains, including quinoa, whole wheat pasta, oatmeal, whole wheat bread and barley
  • Beans and lentils, such as black beans, white beans, split peas, lentils, pinto beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas and edamame
  • Nuts, especially almonds and pistachios, chia seeds, flax seeds and pumpkin seeds

(Related: 7 Benefits of Fiber That Should Convince You to Eat Enough of It)

2. Drink plenty of water

In addition to adjusting your diet, Dr. Kalakota also stresses the importance of drinking enough water.

"Increase your fluid intake to at least 64 ounces per day, so long as you don't have other health conditions that require you to keep your water intake lower than that," recommends Dr. Kalakota.

Tips for staying hydrated include:

  • Carrying a water bottle with you and sipping on it throughout the day
  • Drinking a glass of water with breakfast, lunch and dinner
  • Making water less "boring" by trying unsweetened sparkling water or adding fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs to your water
  • Snacking on foods that contain a lot of water, such as cucumbers, celery, watermelon, strawberries and oranges

3. Exercise regularly

Physical activity is also critical for preventing constipation. It's generally recommended that adults get about 150 minutes of exercise per week. For regular bowel movements specifically, workouts don't need to be particularly strenuous.

"Walking, in particular, helps stimulate your gut to move," adds Dr. Kalakota. "It's important to get a good amount of exercise like this if you're struggling with constipation."

4. Use an osmotic laxative to help soften stool

The lifestyle changes above can help fix constipation and prevent it from coming back. But when you're already constipated and in need of relief, there are over-the-counter medications to consider.

"Osmotic laxatives, such as polyethylene glycol, are a mild type of laxative and a great first choice," says Dr. Kalakota. "These medications work by drawing water in your colon, which softens stool and makes it easier to pass."

Since this type of laxative isn't absorbed by the body, side effects are uncommon. However, it can take two to three days for an osmotic laxative to work — so if you're in need of more immediate relief, you may want to choose a stimulant laxative instead.

5. Take a stimulant laxative for quicker relief

Another over-the-counter option is stimulant laxatives. They stimulate muscles in the GI tract walls to contract, speeding up bowel movements. Simulant laxatives work much faster than osmotic laxatives — between 6-12 hours, depending on the specific type — but they can also come with uncomfortable side effects.

"Since stimulant laxatives make your colon squeeze the stool out, they can cause side effects like cramping and diarrhea," adds Dr. Kalakota.

The signs it's time to see your doctor about constipation

If you're still having infrequent or painful bowel movements after several weeks, consult your doctor. (Related: What Causes Chronic Constipation & When to See Your Doctor About It)

Dr. Kalakota points out that chronic constipation — defined as constipation that lasts longer than four weeks — is still often caused by lack of fiber or water. But if the lifestyle remedies and over-the-counter medications for constipation aren't providing relief, your doctor can review what you've tried, make recommended adjustments and, if needed, consider other treatments.

"There are a number of prescription medications we can use to treat chronic constipation," explains Dr. Kalakota. "But we do typically wait to proceed to these until people have failed diet changes and over-the-counter medications, since the prescription options have uncomfortable side effects, like cramping and diarrhea."

And, while rare, even an occasional bout of constipation might be a reason to see your doctor, including if:

  • It's a very sudden change for you
  • There's blood in your stool
  • You're also experiencing severe abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting
  • You have a family history of colon cancer

"These are things that make constipation more worrisome, and it's important to rule out a serious underlying health condition," says Dr. Kalakota.

Need care now?

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Categories: Tips to Live By