Constipation is no fun! It can be uncomfortable, sometimes even painful! And it can lead to a number of other digestive issues if left untreated. If occurs when the stool is unable to pass through the large intestine (the colon) quickly. It tends to be drier, lumpier, and harder than normal causing excessive strain when trying to have a bowel movement.
Constipation often comes along with abdominal pain and bloating. And can be common in people with certain gut issues, like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Approximately 25% of adults experience constipation on a regular basis. Constipation becomes chronic when it happens at least three times per week for three months. But contrary to what a lot of people believe, constipation does NOT need to be a normal part of aging.
Constipation can be caused by diet and/or stress, and even changes to our daily routine. Sometimes the culprit is a medical condition or certain medications. And sometimes it may even be related to a structural problem in the gut. Many times the cause is unknown.
Whether you know why or not, there are some things you can do to help get those bowels moving more freely.
1 - Eat more fibre
You've probably heard to eat more prunes (and figs and dates) if you get constipated.
Why is that?
It comes down to fibre.
Dietary fibre is a type of plant-based carbohydrate that we can’t digest and absorb. Unlike cows, humans don’t have the digestive enzymes to break it down. And that’s a good thing!
Even though we can’t digest it ourselves, fibre is very important for our gut health for two reasons.
First, fibre helps to push things through our system (and out the other end).
Second, fibre is an important food for feeding the friendly bacteria in our gut.
There are two kinds of fibre: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fibre dissolves in water to make a gel-like consistency. It can soften and bulk up the stool; this is the kind of fibre that you want to focus on for helping with constipation. Soluble fibre is found in legumes (beans, peas, lentils), fruit (apples, bananas, berries, citrus, pears, etc.), vegetables (broccoli, carrots, spinach, etc.), and grains like oats.
Psyllium is a soluble non-fermenting fibre from corn husks. It’s been shown to help soften stools and produce a laxative effect.
Insoluble fibre, also holds onto water and can help to push things through the gut and get things moving. It's the kind found in the skins and seeds of fruits and vegetables like asparagus, broccoli, celery, zucchini, as well as the skins of apples, pears, and potatoes.
It’s recommended that adults consume between 20-35 grams of fibre per day.
Now an important note here on supplements to help with constipation....
Be careful how much of a fibre supplement consume; especially products like Metamucil. These types of fibre supplements can be very harsh on the colon and end up causing more irritation and inflammation. Also, herbs such as cascara segrada and senna should only be used for a short-time on exceptional occasions to help get the bowels moving. However regular use of these herbs will cause the colon to become too reliant on them resulting in a lazy colon long-term.
If you are going to increase your fibre intake, make sure to do it gradually. And pay very close attention to how your bowels respond. Everyone's gut health is different and reacts differently to the different types of fibre so observe and respond accordingly.
Another important note! Whenever you are increasing your fibre intake, you MUST increase your water intake significantly! Soluble fibre can absorb up to 30 times it's own weight in water so it's vital that you drink enough water so that you don't form a plug. Without enough water, you may be making things worse instead of better. And this brings me to my next point.....
2 - Drink more fluids
Since constipated stools are hard and dry, drinking more fluids can help keep everything hydrated and moist. This is especially true when trying to maintain a healthy gut every day, rather than when trying to deal with the problem of constipation after it has started.
And it doesn't only have to be water - watery foods like soups, and some fruits and vegetables and herbal teas can also contribute to your fluid intake.
Always ensure you're well hydrated, and drinking according to thirst; this is recommended for gut health as well as overall health.
3 - Probiotics
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that come in fermented foods and supplements. They have a number of positive effects on gut health and constipation. They affect gut transit time (how fast food goes through us), increase the number of bowel movements per week, and help to soften stools to make them easier to pass.
Now don't be fooled into thinking that all you have to do is drink a fruit-flavoured Actimel each day and your constipation will miraculously disappear. Yes, yoghurt does contain probiotics however you need the bacteria to be LIVE to have a positive impact and you would need to eat at least 2-3 servings a day. Sugar-loaded, fruit-laden yoghurts are not going to give you the amount of good bacteria that you need.
Probiotic foods (and drinks) include fermented vegetables (like sauerkraut and kimchi), miso, kefir, and kombucha. (There is a small caveat here however - if you suspect you may have a yeast overgrowth known as Candidiasis, fermented foods may feed the problem so it's always best to rule out this condition first before introducing lots of fermented foods.)
More research is needed when it comes to recommending a specific probiotic supplement or strain. If you’re going to take supplements, make sure to read the label to ensure that it’s safe for you. And take it as directed.
4 - Lifestyle
Some studies show that regular exercise can work wonders for our gut health.
Ideally, aim to exercise for at least 30 minutes most days for best results.
In terms of stress, when we’re stressed, it often affects our digestive system. The connection between our gut and our brain is so strong, researchers have coined the term “gut-brain axis.” When we are under stress, the hormone cortisol is constantly elevated which signals the body to shut down all other vital body processes temporarily to direct all energy sources towards dealing with the stress on hand. Only once the stress has subsided and cortisol levels revert to normal will the digestive system be able to function optimally again.
By better managing stress, we can help to reduce emotional and physical issues (like gut issues) that may result from stress. Try things like meditation, deep breathing, and exercise.
And last but not least - make sure to go when you need to go! Don’t hold it in because that can make things worse.
In conclusion, optimal digestion is so important for overall health. Constipation is a common problem that if left unresolved can lead to bigger health issues down the road.
Increasing our fibre and water intake and boosting our friendly gut bacteria levels are key things we can do to help maintain healthy, regular bowel movements.
And don't forget how lifestyle habits can affect our physical health too! Exercise, stress management, and going to the bathroom regularly can also help us maintain great gut health.
Have you found that fibre, water, or probiotics affect your gut health? What about exercise, stress, and regular bathroom trips? If this is an area that you struggle with and are concerned about your gut health overall, click here to book your free 45 minute strategy session today!
Fancy a yummy, high-fibre breakfast recipe the whole family will love? Check this one out....
Recipe: Steel Cut Oats with Pears
1 cup steel cut oats, gluten-free
2 cups water
2 cups almond milk, unsweetened
2 medium pears, sliced
4 tsp maple syrup
4 dashes cinnamon
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
Toast oats by placing them in a large saucepan over medium-high heat for 2-4 minutes. Make sure to stir them frequently to prevent burning.
Add salt, water, and almond milk to the saucepan of toasted oats.
Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20-30 minutes, or until desired tenderness is reached.
Divide into four bowls and top with pears, walnuts, maple syrup, and cinnamon.
Serve & enjoy!
Tip: If you want to roast your pears first, place them in a baking dish at 375F for about 10 minutes while you’re cooking the oats.