Foods for Constipation Relief: Dietary Laxatives to Keep Things Moving
Constipation is a condition that affects 10-20% of the population, most of whom suffer in silence. And while chronic constipation is a symptom of more serious underlying gut dysfunction, keeping the bowels moving and pooping while identifying and treating the underlying root cause is a critical part of the healing journey. Fortunately, there are natural foods for constipation relief.
Dietary interventions like eating more fibre, drinking sufficient water, removing inflammatory foods, and adding foods 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. They’ll also help avoid the need for expensive and invasive alternatives such as laxatives and colonics.
How foods can provide constipation relief
There are many ways in which foods can keep things moving. The main mechanisms are outlined in the diagram below and include:
> As a bulking agent - typically soluble and insoluble forms of fibre that adds volume to stools and stimulates intestinal motility.
> As an osmotic agent - stimulates a bowel movement by drawing water into the stool, making it softer and easier to pass.
> As a stimulant or motility agent - acts on the intestinal mucosa and stimulates peristalsis, often by irritating the gut lining.
> Bacterial and microbiome balance - a healthy balance of gut bacteria plays an important role in overall gastrointestinal health and maintaining bowel motility.
So what are the most scientifically proven foods for constipation relief?
Fibre is essential for a healthy digestive tract and for normal pooping. This is related to fibre’s ability to act as a bulking agent, increasing stool weight and the health of our gut microbiome. That said, all fibre is not created equal. While fibre from real, whole foods like fruits, vegetables and seeds will likely provide benefit for most people, the same cannot be said of processed and supplemental fibre options.
Current guidance is to aim for between 25-40 grams of fibre per day from natural sources. Stick with fresh fruits and vegetables and steer clear of ‘high-fibre’ cereals, shakes and other processed foods that, for many sufferers, can actually make their constipation worse. My favourite options are chia and flax seeds, leafy green vegetables and fruits that include pectin like pears and apples.
Magnesium is one of the most common mineral deficiencies in adults, so it’s no wonder we’re all bunged up. Magnesium is an electrolyte 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 and micro-algae superfoods like chlorella and spirulina. In my free Clearing Chronic Constipation e-book I also provide all the detail you need on using natural magnesium supplements to achieve a bowel motion for those of us who suffer with more chronic constipation.
Not only is vitamin C good for your immune system, it can also do wonders for your digestion. 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 fibre without the high sugar content of other fruits. Other great sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, dark leafy vegetables like spinach and rocket, as well as broccoli. Again, for more chronic cases, dietary sources may not be sufficient and you can read about supplementing with vitamin C in my free Clearing Chronic Constipation e-book.
Sorbitol is a slow-metabolising sugar alcohol derived from fruits, corn and seaweed, 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 quick fast. 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. Anyone with SIBO who’s ever had prune juice will know exactly what I mean...
Thankfully the era of vilifying fats is over. And this can only mean good things for our digestion. Yes, processed foods full of bad fats aren’t going to help, but as we’ve learnt with most things; not all fats are created equal. 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. Just make sure you steer clear of things like vegetable oils, trans fats and other processed fats.
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 and as a nice anti-inflammatory gut-healing tonic packed with enzymes, vitamins, minerals and electrolytes.
Probiotic rich foods
Our understanding of the positive power of probiotics continues to grow everyday. Given how important the bacteria 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. I have no doubt that this is merely the tip of the iceberg.
For that reason, and because they taste delicious, 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 (if you tolerate it), sauerkraut and kimchi.
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.
For a lot of clients, this can include the presence of parasites, bacterial pathogens or overgrowths. If this sounds like you, please head to the Work With Us page to learn more about how we work online with clients in many countries to test for and treat the many root causes of IBS symptoms and other GI conditions.