Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Too much stress, too much sugary starchy foods, too sudden of a diet change... the result is the same – when things are not moving, constipation kicks in!
Don’t worry, you’re not alone. In the UK, around one in every seven adults, men and women, and up to one every three children experience constipation (1), and in the US it affects about 42 million people (2).
What does constipation do to the digestive system?
When you eat, your food is broken down in your stomach and moves into the small intestine where it releases all its useful nutrients, vitamins and minerals into your body. What is left is waste the body does not need. This moves forward into the colon where the body draws water from it, and what is left forms your stools (3). Your muscles push the stools forward, scientifically known as peristalsis, till it reaches the rectum where it eventually comes out when you go to the bathroom.
What causes constipation in adults?
If you resist the urge to go for too long, for example, your stools are just sitting there and the body keeps drawing water out, making their consistency dry and hard, which can cause severe constipation. This can make it quite painful when you finally decide to go. However, that’s not the only cause – other possibilities include a lack of fibre-rich foods in your diet, not drinking enough water, not exercising, and it can even happen as a side effect of certain medications (1).
The great news is that there are many things adults can do to help ease constipation and helpful foods you can start incorporating into your diet today to help manage constipation.
What to eat when constipated and bloated
1. Add linseeds and flaxseeds to your meals
These little seeds are some of the best foods to relieve constipation fast as they contain a mix of soluble (absorbs water in the body, becoming a gel-like consistency which helps soften the stools, providing a smoother delivery) and insoluble (adds bulk to the waste in your digestive tract, helping to relieve constipation) fibre, both of which help to keep your bowel movements in tip-top condition (4). They are also a vegetarian source of anti-inflammatory Omega 3 (5), powerful antioxidants (6), and hormone balancing lignans (7).
Try incorporating 1 tbsp of ground flaxseeds (if left whole, they will just pass through you and won’t have as much benefit in helping with constipation) daily with two cups of water, as adding fibre without plenty of liquids might actually have the opposite effect and increase constipation (3). You can also add them to your smoothies or sprinkle them on salads and porridge. This is one of the most popular home remedies for constipation relief.
2. Pile up on dark leafy greens
As a general rule of thumb, half of your plate should preferably be filled with dark, leafy green vegetables like chard, spinach and kale – this can help with long-term immediate bowel movement. The more you incorporate different types of veggies (all colours of the rainbow are great too), the more you’ll benefit from different vitamins and minerals to help you upgrade your health (8).
Also, vegetables are a great source of insoluble fibre which adds bulk to your stools relieving constipation (9). Head over to your local farmers market or supermarket and choose the vegetables you prefer. This could be your first goal towards a healthier lifestyle and help stress-free bowel movements.
3. Eat the right kind of carbs
Oats, one of the best foods that relieve constipation, are a source of both soluble and insoluble fibre, so they’ll be working together to help you avoid any unpleasant straining when you go to the toilet (10).
You can try starting your day with a delicious breakfast like a combination of porridge with almond milk, coconut oil, cinnamon, walnuts, banana and fresh raspberries.
Another good general rule is to switch any white, refined food you might be eating such as white rice, white bread or white potatoes, to their unrefined form, ie. wholegrain bread, brown rice and sweet potatoes. This will not only help you increase the fibre content of the diet, it will provide you with essential B vitamins to help cognitive function and help boost your concentration and energy levels (11) (12).
Natural remedies for constipation
1. If you're not already, drink a lot more water
Take a moment and ask yourself, are you drinking enough water? It could be a quick remedy for severe constipation.
It's recommended to slowly increase the amount of fibre in your diet, but also make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day (13) (14). When your body is hydrated, less water will be taken from the colon, so your stools can be soft and able to keep moving easily on their way to the rectum (15). To check if you are drinking enough water, monitor the colour of urine throughout the day – you are aiming for a steady pale yellow colour.
Do you find water bland? Why not trying to make your very own infused water. Grab your flask, add any veggies or fruits you like then add filtered water. Pop your bottle in the fridge and take with you the day after so you can drink your refreshment throughout the day. One popular combination is mineral water infused with oranges, lemons and ginger.
2. Exercise to help get things moving
It’s not just about food to get your bowels to start moving again. Your whole body needs to move in order to stay regular (16) (17). No need for crazy, high-intensity exercise – choose anything you might enjoy from yoga to pilates, or a long walk with your dog to help relieve constipation.
Hopefully, there is enough for you here to start making more informed choices on diet and lifestyle changes that can help your constipation become a distant memory.
Constipation in young children
Constipation is common in childhood, particularly when children are being potty trained at around two to three years old. Your child may be constipated if they don't poo at least three times a week, their poo is often large, hard and difficult to push out, or if their poo looks like little pellets.
If your child is already potty trained, soiled pants can be another sign of constipation, as runny poo (diarrhoea) may leak out around the hard, constipated poo. This is called overflow soiling (18).
If your child is constipated, they may find it painful to poo. This can create a vicious circle – the more it hurts, the more they hold back. Even if pooing isn't painful, once your child is really constipated, they may stop wanting to go to the toilet altogether.
If you think your child may be constipated, take them to the GP. The treatment for constipation depends on your child’s age. The longer your child is constipated, the more difficult it can be for them to get back to normal, so make sure you get help early.
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1. NHS: www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Constipation/Pages/Introduction.aspx
2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/constipation/definition-facts
3. British Society of Gastroenterology: https://www.bsg.org.uk/patients/general/constipation.html
4. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4152533/
5. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16841863/
6. Wiley Online Library: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1541-4337.2009.00105.x/abstract
7. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4375225/
8. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24687909
9. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27152300
10. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4677277/
11. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20301011/
12. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5381339/
13. Science Direct: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0021755717303315?via%253Dihub
14. Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/water/art-20044256
15. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://sngastro.com/pdf/constipation.pdf
16. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine: https://www.jabfm.org/content/24/4/436.full
17. US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28185025
18. NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/constipation-and-soiling/