Constipation can lead to frustration and feeling like total crap. (Pun obviously intended.) Here’s the lowdown on constipation, plus a variety of natural constipation remedies that are very effective.
I’ll never forget the “ughhhhh” feeling of my insides rumbling around like a mack truck on a dirt road.
I was in my early twenties, on a trip to Uganda. We were trying to be so careful to drink only bottled water and eat only cooked food to avoid bugs or parasites that could wreak havoc on our digestive systems… but alas, I was in urgent need of a bathroom.
After a trip to the facilities, I quickly realized that I was in dire straights so I popped a couple of immodiums and laid down for a bit. Thankfully the diarrhea stopped.
Unfortunately, though, it worked a bit too well. I was horribly constipated for the next six weeks and ended up at the ER when I returned home to Canada.
After that crappy (pun intended) ER visit, I learned to NEVER let myself go more than a few days without a BM. I’ve had to try a lot of different natural remedies to find out what really worked.
Some people tend toward loose bowels when their bodies are out of kilter. Me? I’m the opposite. For years I would get severely constipated at the drop of a hat, but after MANY years of frustration, I’ve finally found myself regular (every day! it’s a miracle!) and healthier than ever before in that department.
As you (hopefully) already know, healthy pooping is 100% essential to good health. So sit down and get comfortable because we’re gonna have us a conversation all about it.
What is Constipation?
It’s more than just straining on the loo. Constipation is when someone has fewer than three bowel movements a week, and/or the stool is hard to pass, and/or the bowels aren’t fully emptying.
Chronic constipation happens when these symptoms last for several weeks or more.
According to the Bristol stool chart, constipation looks like hard lumpy stool, or a lumpy, dry sausage shape. You may even have “skinny” looking poo, which means the bowels aren’t fully emptying.
The Skinny on Poop
Here are some reasons why stool can be thin:
- Impacted feces in the colon
- Colon polyps
- Abdominal hernias
- Distended or stretched colon
- Twisted bowels
- Parasites (usually accompanied by other symptoms like fatigue, weight loss, cramping, and nausea)
- Bowel disease, like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis
- Intestinal infections like salmonella and gastroenteritis
The Dangers of Constipation
It’s more than just inconvenient… constipation can be a sign of serious health problems. It’s often accompanied by bloating and abdominal pain. Constipation can also lead to more health problems. Straining too hard to go can lead to painful hemorrhoids (source).
Bottom line – it means that something is not right in your digestive system, and needs to be corrected.
As you probably already know – I’m a big proponent of holistic health and this is a prime example of why. The vast majority of people having digestive issues (constipation or IBS-type symptoms) are dismissed by the medical system and sent home with a prescription for some sort of pharmaceutical drug that doesn’t address the root cause – and may even cause additional harm.
The medical community has a lot of catching up to do in this department but I was bound and determined to advocate for myself and my family. None of what I’m telling you today is anything I learned from my doctor. I did, however, pore over medical research journals, articles, and other sources to collate and share this all with you. I’m also sharing my personal experience.
What Causes Constipation?
Constipation is a sign our digestive system isn’t up to par. There can be a lot of reasons, but here are the most common.
#1 – Diet
The old saying “you are what you eat” has some truth behind it. When we eat healthy, we feel healthy and have healthy bowel movements. Because of genetic differences this will look a little different for each of us.
In general though, whole, unprocessed foods, adequate protein, lots of veggies (I shoot for 10-14 cups a day per person. I hit that easily, but it’s more challenging for my kids and hubby), and some healthy fats are the way to go.
Our bodies need carbohydrates too, but you can get them from lots of places – including starchy veggies like carrots and peas and squash. (Our culture overdoes it on empty, processed carbs. Don’t emulate that.)
If you want to include grains in your diet be sure to consume them in the healthiest way possible. More info here in my post Are Grains Good or Bad for You? What do the Real Food Experts Say?
In our family, we consume potatoes, white rice, and gluten-free sourdough as our main sources of carbs, which works well for us.
#2 – Not Enough Fiber (Of the Right Kind)
This is probably the number one thing we hear when it comes to constipation: eat more fiber. In fact, less than 3% of us meet our daily recommended fiber intake.
However – it’s super important to know that there are two types of fiber; soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber is the kind we want to keep food moving through our digestive system. This type of fiber:
- Speeds up the transit time for stool moving through the colon
- Helps absorb and sweep out gut toxins
- Helps keep our gut happy and healthy
- Lowers the risk of gut issues like SIBO and diverticulitis
- Reduces cancer risk
Sources of insoluble fiber:
- vegetables (especially dark leafy greens)
- some fruits
- some whole grains
- flax and chia seeds
Soluble fiber is important too (especially for anyone dealing with diarrhea), but it can cause problems for those with constipation. Since it can add bulk to the stool, if your transit time is too slow it can cause gas and bloating.
Fiber and IBS
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), causes pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. An estimated 11% of the world struggles with this condition. In developed countries where processed food is the norm, that number may be as high as 20%.
Some experts say fiber can make IBS symptoms worse and recommend avoiding it. Diverticulitis, tiny pockets in the colon, is another condition where insoluble fiber is usually not recommended. It’s not quite so simple though…
In one study IBS patients were given soluble fiber, insoluble fiber, and a placebo. The soluble fiber group saw significant improvement, while the insoluble fiber group got marginally better. Here’s the thing though. The insoluble fiber didn’t worsen their IBS.
Fiber and Gut Diseases
In cases of celiac and autoimmune disease, where the intestinal villi is damaged, fiber can help. In this animal study, researchers found that insoluble fiber increases the height of intestinal villi (which is a good thing). This means there’s more surface area for nutrients to be absorbed.
#3 – Gut Damage and Constipation
When the gut becomes damaged it can often lead to autoimmune disease, like hypothyroid. Because of the gut-brain connection, you’ll often see issues like asthma, allergies, and ADHD pop up too. These leaky gut issues come with digestive problems too, like constipation.
When the gut can’t effectively digest food, we wind up with food allergies and intolerances. These can cause a whole host of symptoms, from PMS, to fatigue, and depression. The most common symptoms are pain, bloating, constipation, and other digestive problems (source).
Common food triggers:
- Highly processed foods (check out 15 Real Food Weeknight Dinners)
- Dairy, especially pasteurized
- Gluten and other grains, especially when not traditionally prepared with soaking, sprouting, or sourdough
- Over-consumption of sugar (including natural sugars)
- Eggs (I recently came off a 9-month break from eggs after seeing that they made my eczema worse. I’m trialling adding them back to my diet now.)
#4 Not Enough Fat
In the past several decades fat became the villain of health. Blamed for obesity, high cholesterol, and heart disease, experts warned us to stay away from saturated fat. More recently though more realize the blame was misplaced and fat is a necessary part of a healthy diet.
Fat is important for hormone health, brain function, the nervous system, and gut health. All things that need to function well to avoid constipation. Healthy fats trigger our gastrocolic reflex that tells the colon to get ready and make space for more food (source).
Side note: some diet/wellness culture folks have replaced fat with carbs as the latest “evil”. Be aware of the demonization of foods and how this seems to go in cycles. Carbs are a necessary part of our diet and should not be demonized. I’d argue our culture overeats carbs, but let’s not swing the pendulum too far in the other direction either.
#5 More to the Story
These factors are also linked with causing constipation:
- Travel (which can cause stress and food changes)
- Certain medications (including opiates)
- Iron supplements (specifically ferrous sulfate)
- Old age
- Lack of exercise
- Hormone imbalance (autoimmune disease, pregnancy, and thyroid disorders)
- Weak pelvic floor muscles
- Misaligned spine
- Nerve damage (from things like Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and multiple sclerosis)
Natural Remedies for Constipation
Now that we know what causes constipation, how do we fix it? It helps to attack the problem from both sides. Since fecal matter rotting in our colon makes any health issue worse, it’s important to treat both the root cause and relieve constipation symptoms.
#1) Change up the Diet
Eating enough healthy fats, insoluble and soluble fiber from vegetables, and drinking enough water are key natural remedies for constipation. Our family has done the GAPS (gut and psychology syndrome) diet to reset digestion and improve health. Healing diets like GAPS can help resolve the root causes of constipation.
Here are healthy foods to focus on:
- High fiber from low sugar fruits and veggies
- Gut healing bone broth and gelatin
- Healthy fats from grass-fed animals
- Coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil
- Grass-fed meat
- Cultured, grass-fed dairy (if tolerated)
- Fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut (try my recipes for fermented garlic dill pickles, fermented ketchup, and this awesome round-up post of fermented foods for the holidays.)
Our guts are teeming with trillions of bacteria that help our body function properly. However, sometimes things can get out of hand down there. Probiotics help balance gut flora and get things working smoothly again. There’s more to it than just popping a pill though.
Certain probiotic strains can improve certain health conditions, yet make others worse. If you have specific health or digestive issues it’s important to use the right probiotic strain.
Bacillus subtilis is a soil based probiotic shown to help with constipation. Probiotic rich fermented foods are also great natural remedies for constipation, like the ones mentioned above.
It may sound weird, but enemas are one of the time tested natural remedies for constipation. Saline, or salt enemas, help break up impacted feces and expel it from the colon. Coffee enemas are another popular option, but they work differently.
Coffee stimulates the liver, improves digestion, increases energy, and flushes out toxins. While this is helpful to treat the root cause of constipation, it can’t work if there’s no room for it to go… aka you’re constipated.
If you’re constipated it’s recommended to do a salt enema first, then follow it up with a coffee enema. Here you can read all about coffee enemas, how to do them, and who should avoid them.
Magnesium is an essential nutrient for many processes in the body, including digestion. However, most of us aren’t getting enough. Thanks to modern day farming our soil is depleted and magnesium in foods is low.
Best Magnesium for Constipation
Magnesium citrate is one easy way to relieve constipation. However, it may not be a long term solution. Some experts point out it can cause a copper and iron imbalance in the body which leads to other health problems (source).
There’s another issue to consider. While citric acid is naturally found in foods like lemons, citric acid and citrate added to foods has a very different source. Citrate, even in natural foods, is cultured on aspergillus mold. Those with previous toxic mold exposure often can’t tolerate it (source).
If you do opt for magnesium citrate, Natural Calm is a popular brand. The powder dissolves easily in water and tastes delicious.
#5) Flax and Chia Seeds
Both flax and chia seeds are oily demulcents. These healthy fats moisten dry intestinal tissues to help move things along. This 2004 study found they helped speed intestinal movements and increased the number of bowel movements.
Freshly ground flax seeds can easily be mixed into baked goods, added to smoothies, or sprinkled on salads. Chia seeds should be added to a liquid before eating or they can be dehydrating. Here’s a yummy Minty Mango Smoothie recipe that uses both, and here’s my delicious Chocolate Chia Seed Pudding recipe that my kids (and myself!) love.
#6) Hot Water
It may sound simple, but drinking enough water is key to preventing constipation. Warm or hot water is an even better natural remedy for constipation. According to gastroenterologist Felice Schnoll-Sussman:
Warm lemon water in the morning is a great way to wake up our digestive system and get things moving. Here’s a honey sweetened lemonade recipe that you can drink warm.
Speaking of warm liquids, some people find coffee helps keep them regular. If you’re sensitive to the caffeine, both regular and decaf coffee have a mild laxative effect.
How does it work?
Coffee is thought to stimulate bile production. This in turn improves digestion and increases bowel movements. If you add healthy fats, that helps even more. Here’s my real food version of the bulletproof coffee trend (source).
This Ayurvedic herbal formula boasts a wide array of health benefits from heart health to digestion. It’s generally considered safe for all ages and for long periods of time. Triphala really shines when it comes to constipation though.
Triphala is a nutritional remedy that deeply cleanses and detoxes without depleting the body. It also helps stimulate bile flow and push stool through the intestines. General dosage is 2-6 tablets a day, or 2-3 grams of powder stirred into liquids. A smaller dosage is cleansing, while higher dosages have a laxative effect (source).
Senna herb is similar to triphala in that it stimulates the body to push the stool through the intestines. However, this stimulant laxative shouldn’t be used long term, as it can cause dependence. Senna is available in capsules, tablets, or teas. If you take it, be sure to keep a bathroom handy!
Once senna stimulates the bowel muscles to contract, the need to eliminate is strong.
Natural Remedies for Constipation: Herbs
Bitter herbs, like dandelion, stimulate digestion, gastric enzymes, pancreatic enzymes, and bile production. If we want to avoid sluggish digestion in the lower part of the body, we need to start at the top. Even tasting bitter herbs stimulates saliva that kick starts digestion and acts as a gentle laxative.
You can drink dandelion root tea, take dandelion tincture, or eat the greens in salads and smoothies. Because this is a nutritive herb, there aren’t strict dosage guidelines here. Dandelion is considered generally safe for most people. However those with gallbladder obstruction (but not sludge), should avoid it (source).
This common cooking spice is useful for more than beef stew. Marjoram helps relieve constipation, ease spasms, and expel gas. It relaxes intestinal muscles to calm spasms and soothes indigestion. It also has a history of use for IBS and other gastrointestinal disorders (source).
While not specifically used for constipation, peppermint helps relieve some of the accompanying symptoms. Mint improves digestion and helps relieve gas and bloating. This herb is also frequently used for IBS. If you have GERD or acid reflux though, it can irritate those conditions and should be used with caution or avoided.
Peppermint tea is a delicious way to get your daily dose, or you can get enteric coated capsules.
Fennel is another common digestive herb, especially for babies. As the featured ingredient in gripe water, it has a long and safe history of use for all ages. Researchers have also found fennel oil is safe to use for pregnancy constipation after the first trimester (source).
#14) Essential Oils for Constipation
These can be diluted and rubbed over the lower abdomen to help get things moving. Massaging the area to promote pushing the stool out is also helpful.
For IBS there are enteric coated peppermint capsules available that survive the trip through the stomach acid and into the lower digestive tract. I don’t recommend ingesting any essential oils though without the guidance of a clinical aromatherapist specifically trained in internal use (many aren’t).
- Peppermint and spearmint
- Sweet orange oil
- Black pepper (5% maximum dilution)
Which Constipation Remedies Should I Avoid?
To recap: Stimulating laxatives shouldn’t be used long term. Also bulk forming laxatives should be combined with stimulating laxatives. But there’s another common laxative I recommend avoiding.
If it’s commonly prescribed to young children and the elderly, it must be safe. Right?
Miralax, or propylene glycol as it’s called, is anything but benign. Even though it’s prescribed for months or years at a time, Miralax is only FDA approved for a maximum of 7 days. It’s also not FDA approved for use in children.
The FDA has called for more research after parents reported tremors, tics, and OCD symptoms after their child took the product. In 2011 the FDA listed neuropsychiatric events as a possible side effect (source).
And if you have a bowel obstruction and take Miralax it can cause a life threatening reaction. Other reported side effects include (but aren’t limited to):
- Abdominal pain and distension
- Upset stomach or severe stomach pain
- Rectal bleeding
- Severe or bloody diarrhea
- Allergic reactions.
What About Metamucil?
Although it’s touted as “natural,” bulk forming laxatives like Metamucil are composed largely of sugar and artificial dyes and flavors. Psyllium seed husk however is the active ingredient in these products.
You can stir plain psyllium seed husk into juice or water and it works the same way. Bulk forming laxatives like these should be paired with a stimulating laxative, like senna. If the colon isn’t pushing the stool through, the bulk will just accumulate and cause more bloating, gas, and constipation.
Which of these natural constipation remedies work FAST?
Some of the above remedies are meant to support a lifestyle that includes regular elimination (like herbs, drinking lots of water, my morning coffee, etc.) but others are more of a quick help when you’re backed up and need relief.
The remedies I reach for first when I’ve gone longer than 36 hours without a good bowel movement are:
- Magnesium. There are a number of forms of magnesium but Natural Calm is what I use to target constipation as it easily causes loose bowels. I take 2tsp in a glass of water at night, and again the next day if I haven’t had success yet.
- Flax and chia. I have a highly effective flax granola recipe coming to the blog soon that always works wonders for me. I’ll update this post with a link as soon as it’s published! (You could also try adding a tablespoon of ground flax to any smoothie.)
The Bottom Line on Natural Constipation Remedies?
Constipation is a sign of a more serious problem, but thankfully there are plenty of solutions. A healthy diet and the right natural remedies for constipation will help get things moving!