Constipation is something that everyone deals with at one point in our lives. No one enjoys feeling constipated, so we decided to put together a handy guide to explain what to do if you’ve been dealing with constipation. In this blog, you will learn about the 5 best foods for constipation relief and the types of mistakes that people make that lead to constipation in the first place.
Table of Contents
Am I Constipated?
So what exactly is constipation? Constipation is characterized by experiencing less than three bowel movements per week. And when you finally do get that infrequent constipation relief, it is anything but relieving. It never feels like you’re fully empty, your belly is distended, and quite honestly it hurts.
You’re aiming for a soft, easy to pass, and solid stool that takes very little time and effort. The reality is, you’re undergoing minutes upon minutes of strain to end up with painfully rigid pebbles. Know your worth and don’t settle for pebbles.
Physiology of Pooping
“Freedom of the bowels is the most precious, perhaps even the most essential, of all freedoms- one without which little can be accomplished,” Emile Gautier, 1909.
To understand the physiology of constipation, first we need to understand that not all constipation is the same. There are multiple different forms of constipation: primary, normal-transit, slow-transit, and secondary constipation.
Primary constipation (also known as functional constipation) is broken up into a couple categories: normal-transit is related to fiber deficiency, slow-transit is related to neuromuscular problems in the colon. Secondary constipation is drug-related or a consequence of a medical condition like hypothyroidism or IBS.
This undesirable constipation can result from a number of lifestyle issues.
- Inadequate dietary fiber intake
- Inadequate water consumption
- Sleep issues
- Lack of exercise
- Reduced movement in the gut
- Magnesium deficiency
- Food intolerance
- Laxative abuse
- Gut bacteria imbalance, called dysbiosis (especially methane-dominant bacteria that can cause SIBO)
Constipation Treatment Overview
- To get regular and relieve constipation, you have to know what regular is.
Regular bowel movements should happen 1-3 times per day and be neither “loose” nor “rigid’. You’re aiming for that dream poop described earlier; devoid of pain, strain, and mess.
- Stimulate peristalsis (movement in the gut)
Get your body moving to get your colon moving. Whether it’s walking, dancing, yoga, or weightlifting, exercise makes stools easier to pass and relieves constipation.
You may also trigger your vagus nerve by gargling water a few times per day. Your vagus nerve is in control of triggering digestion when you are in a rest-digest state. Practicing vagus nerve activation can improve your ability to properly digest food and relieve constipation.
Invest in a squatty potty to get your body in the biological position its used to!
- Consider medication.
Prescriptions for medications are on a case-by-case basis as determined by your healthcare practitioner.
You can try some over the counter constipation medications such as Magnesium Citrate, Colace, and Miralax. These medications are stimulant laxatives that will provide short-term constipation relief but do not treat the underlying cause.
- Make sure the foods you’re eating support gut health and movement.
You[r stools] are what you eat!
Considering most Americans overeat protein and undereat fiber, upping your plant food intake is the first plan of attack.
Fiber is a dietitian’s favorite f-word, and it is the key nutrient in creating a healthy gut microbiome, improving digestion, and promoting constipation relief.
Fiber is a primarily indigestible carb that either remains in your gut during digestion for bacteria to feed on or passes through to assist transit.
Soluble fiber helps bulk up loose stools, insoluble fibers are roughage that help carry our stool, and prebiotics are treats for your gut microbes. When these microbes are happy, they will perform better and keep things moving!
Soluble fiber= stool-bulking & fermentable
Insoluble fiber= speeds up the digestive process
The daily recommended fiber intake for women is between 25-30 grams, but you don’t have to count your grams to reap the benefits. If you know that you are deficient in fiber, I recommend slowly adding more “plant foods” into your diet. Plant foods include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains; basically anything that grew from this Earth.
You can start with the general recommendation of eating 4-5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day while incorporating other plant foods into your favorite meals.
Serving sizes for each of these foods are:
- 1 cup fruit
- 3 cups non-starchy vegetables
- 1 cup starchy vegetables
- ½ – 1 cup cooked legumes
- ¼ cup or 1 oz of nuts & seeds
- 1 cup cooked whole grains
Water intake is always important, but it is immensely important when increasing your fiber intake. Many fibers actually absorb water, so they could possibly cause constipation instead of alleviating it as you intended.
Water itself is an agent in fecal transit, as it provides the colon with hydration to form a healthy stool. When there is less water in the colon, the stool can be dry and hard.
Aim for at least 8 cups of water per day and increase as needed.
3. Chlorogenic Acids/Phenolic Compounds
Pass the prunes – their phenolic compounds (chlorogenic acids) stimulate your stomach to produce extra acid which hurries your bowel movements! Unsurprisingly, many foods high in chlorogenic acid are also high in fiber.
Rather than supplemt with chlorogenic acid or phenolic compounds, choose a whole food source instead. Foods high in these compounds contain micronutrients that work together to improve bowel health.
Foods high in chlorogenic acids are:
- Coffee beans
Its presence in both coffee and tea lend backing to the coffee poop phenomenon!
4. Probiotics: Inviting New Friends into Your Gut
Another cause of constipation is that your gut could be lacking the beneficial bacteria needed to optimize digestion without discomfort. Reintroducing friendly microbes back into the gut both speeds up and improves the quality of bowel movements.
When introducing a probiotic into your diet, it should be easy to take and sustainable. Taking a probiotic one time will only exert effects for a few days, whereas routinely taking probiotics can alter the bacterial makeup of your microbiome-for the better!
If you are choosing to take a probiotic for a specific health problem, you want to take an isolated strain. Bifidobacterium, lactobacillus, and spore-based strains are well-researched in treating constipation.
What matters when picking a probiotic pill/supplement: type of bacteria, source of bacteria, prebiotic content, and timing.
Another way to introduce healthy bacteria into your gut is with probiotic-rich foods.
Probiotic foods include:
Make sure your probiotics are alive by checking the labels for the words “live & active cultures.”
5. Feeding Your Gut’s Friends with Prebiotics
To keep those probiotics healthy, they need food. Prebiotics are food for beneficial bacteria. Prebiotics are not just a soluble or insoluble fiber, they actually don’t squarely fit into either of these categories. They are indigestible carbs, similar to insoluble fiber, but they only become prebiotics when “good” gut microbes are able to feed on them. When “bad” gut microbes are able to ferment soluble fiber, this is what produces gastrointestinal discomfort.
Prebiotic fiber = soluble & fermentable only by good bacteria
Prebiotics include different forms of starch derivatives, sugar alcohols, and oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharides are excluded from the popular low-FODMAP diet, but are extremely beneficial in gut healing.
When good bacteria feed on oligosaccharides, they produce what are known as short chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are metabolites that maintain intestinal balance by thickening the gut wall. A strong gut wall protects against food particles spilling into the bloodstream causing inflammation that will lead to other digestive disorders.
Prebiotic foods include:
- Unripe bananas
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Chicory root
What Slows Your Digestion Down
Insufficient calories, inadequate carbohydrates, and high intake of saturated fats are three factors that play a huge role in constipation. These are the things that you should avoid if seeking constipation relief.
The body is an efficient machine and will not waste energy in times of caloric restriction. Digestion accounts for at least 10% of our bodies’ daily energy expenditure, and there must be sufficient food to initiate a bowel movement.
If you are severely restricting calories, when you have a bowel movement, it is going to be smaller than average and even more painful due to lack of food.
Fiber is the cooler, healthier version of carbohydrates although foundationally they are one in the same. Eating a low-carbohydrate diet essentially starves the probiotics that live in your gut, preventing beneficial bacteria from making a home in your microbiome.
Low-carb diets for gut health are promoted under the guise of being symptom-reducers, but note that they are not problem solvers. Eating fewer carbohydrates means you will have less bacterial diversity and short-term digestive discomfort.
Eating low carb is the diet version of an antibiotic, as you would not be feeding any bacteria – neither beneficial or harmful! Without feeding the beneficial bacteria, your gut lining is unable to repair and reseal.
Disclaimer: If you are coming off of a low-carb diet, there will be initial digestive discomfort while the body figures out how to create enough carb-digesting enzymes.
Ease into upping your carbohydrate intake; >150 grams is recommended.
While prebiotics stimulate the release of SCFAs, overconsumption of saturated fats releases lipopolysaccharide (LPS) endotoxins. They are able to enter the bloodstream and cause neuroinflammation that reduces motility needed for regular bowel movements.
It is recommended to limit saturated fats to 1 tbsp per meal or eliminate them if following an anti-inflammatory diet for constipation relief.
Sources of saturated fat are non-lean animal products such as:
- Chicken with the skin
- Turkey with the skin
- Full fat dairy
What to Eat for Constipation Relief
Now you should better understand how to eat an anti-constipation diet. To summarize, here is exactly what to eat for constipation relief:
- Work on slowly increasing your fiber from plant food sources and phenolic compounds to give your good gut bacteria the fuel they need.
- Incorporate whole food sources of prebiotics and probiotics to improve the health of your microbiome.
- Eat enough calories for your height, weight, and activity level so that your body has something to digest.
- Eat enough CARBS so your gut bacteria can thrive and you are not raising cortisol.
- Limit your saturated fat intake to prevent free LPS toxins from lowering your gut motility.
It’s time to get the bowel movement you deserve! Keep in mind our top 5 foods to eat for constipation relief. Eat a wide variety of plant foods, eat enough, engage in regular physical activity that feels good to you, practice self-care, and stay hydrated. Lastly, stay away from saturated fats and very low-carb diets. These simple changes can help relieve the pain and suffering of constipation so you can enjoy your life and health.
Constipation can also lead to horrific bloating. If you’re struggling with both constipation and bloating head over and read our blog “Bloating Remedies that Actually Work.”