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Constipated? 6 ways to get things moving

A nutritionist discusses natural, science-backed ways to help relieve constipation.
Cup up
While food alone helps move stool farther down the digestive tract, coffee contains two extra helpers: caffeine and chlorogenic acid.Mariana Pacho L?pez / Empalagarmedemar / Getty Images

Here’s a topic that most people have dealt with, yet few want to talk about: Constipation. It’s that uncomfortable feeling when your poop doesn’t pass easily or regularly, and the consistency may be hard and pebbly or lumpy. Technically speaking, if you’re not able go at least three times per week, you’re constipated.

There are numerous causes of constipation that aren’t related to your diet and lifestyle. For instance, medications can slow down your digestive tract and certain medical conditions may also cause constipation. However, for ordinary constipation, your lifestyle is a factor. Here are some tips to help you get — and keep — things moving.

1. Eat more fiber

Adults need between 25 and 38 grams of fiber per day, yet approximately 95% of Americans aren’t hitting this target. On average, Americans consume 16 grams of fiber per day, according to the latest stats. When you fail to eat adequate amounts of fiber, things can get backed up. Fiber is the non-digestible component of plant foods, such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, pulses, nuts and seeds. These are the best foods to relieve constipation.

There are two main types: soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber provides the bulk in your poop and soluble fiber helps with the consistency, making it softer, and therefore, easier to pass. While all plant foods contain some fiber, they vary in the amount and type. To keep your digestive system running smoothly, aim to eat a range of fiber-rich foods each day so that you get a good amount of both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Some fiber-filled options include avocados, oats, pears, raspberries, black beans, lentils, quinoa, popcorn, almonds and chia seeds. If you’re not used to eating an adequate amount of fiber, boost your intake gradually. Stepping it up too quickly can cause cramping and bloating and can even result in constipation.

2. Increase your water intake

If your fluid intake is low, your body draws water from your stool to make up for the insufficiency, and this makes your stool harder and more difficult to pass. According to the National Academy of Sciences, you meet about 20% of your fluid requirements from food, but the other 80% should come from beverages — ideally, water. That means men should aim for about 13 cups per day and women should shoot for around 9 cups. Granted, some of that can come from other drinks, like coffee and tea, which, while caffeinated, increase your net fluid status, but water is an ideal choice because it's sugar- and calorie-free.

Drinking more water will also help when increasing your fiber intake. If you start eating more fiber without also making sure you’re getting enough fluids, it can lead to uncomfortable symptoms, like gas and bloating, and has the potential to contribute to constipation.

3. Include foods that keep you regular

Certain foods naturally ease constipation, so they’re worth adding to your menu. Prunes, for instance, contain a natural sugar, known as sorbitol, which brings moisture into the colon and makes your stool softer and easier to pass. Prunes are also a good source of fiber. In one review of four studies, three weeks of prune consumption improved stool consistency and frequency, as well as straining during a bowel movement, among people who were constipated.

Kiwi fruit can also help relieve constipation, according to new research. Like with prunes, when constipated subjects ate two kiwis per day, they experienced better stool consistency and less strain when they went to the bathroom. Participants also reported going to the bathroom more often.

4. Stick with a schedule

Your colon prefers to be on a schedule so if that changes, you may get backed up. Travel is a known disruptor because it’s common to change your sleeping and eating patterns when you’re away. But even if you’re hunkering down at home, things can change. The pandemic forced many of us to work and attend school from home, disrupted our sleep schedules and changed — at least temporarily — some of our eating habits. (Remember when everyone was making sourdough bread?)

These changes can throw your digestion off track and result in constipation. If it’s just a temporary blip in your routine, such as when you go away, you’ll probably get back on track when things normalize upon your return home. But if you continue to eat and sleep at unpredictable times, you can’t expect your bowels to follow their regular schedule. Start creating more structure in your life by going to bed and waking up at routine times. Then, have three balanced meals spread four to five hours apart, filling your plate with fiber-rich foods each time.

It may sound weird, but it’s also helpful to try to time your bathroom break for after breakfast, especially if you’re a coffee drinker. While food alone helps move stool farther down the digestive tract, coffee contains two extra helpers: the stimulant caffeine and the plant-substance, chlorogenic acid, a compound found in both caffeinated and decaf brews that promotes the urge to go. You’re also more primed to move your bowels in the morning, so carving out time to go after breakfast makes sense.

5. Try to chill

2020’s word of the year might just be stress, and if you’re feeling it, it can aggravate constipation. Stress tends to go along with eating less healthfully, as well as disruptions in sleep patterns, which can also lead to constipation. On top of that, stress influences hormones that may slow down digestion. Life is undeniably stressful sometimes, and particularly so during a global pandemic, so try participating in activities that help you weather stress better. Some ideas include meditation, yoga or listening to a soothing playlist. Getting outside is another mood booster and stress reliever.

6. Stay active

In addition to being a great stress-buster, exercise helps keep your bowels moving. And it doesn’t need to be punishing to be helpful. Studies suggest that even mild movement can be beneficial. For health reasons, it’s ideal to get your heart rate up, so exercises to relieve constipation should include both aerobic and strength-training exercises, but if your time or energy point you in the direction of a light stroll sometimes, that’s helpful, too.