Everything in your body is sending you the signal that it's time to move your bowels, but nothing's moving. You feel bloated and uncomfortable, but when you try to go, nothing happens. Or, if you do finally go, it hurts.
Constipation occurs for many different reasons. Stress, lack of exercise, certain medications, artificial sweeteners and a diet that's lacking fiber or fluids can each be the culprit. Certain medical conditions, such as an underactive thyroid, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes and cancer, also can cause constipation. Even age is a factor. The older we get, the more prone we are to the problem.
And constipation is a problem, although it's not an illness. It's simply what happens when bowel movements are delayed, compacted and difficult to pass. Once you understand the basics of constipation, it's possible to treat it. Depending on the severity of the case, it may respond to simple home remedies, or it may require medical intervention.
Some people mistakenly believe they must have a certain number of bowel movements a day or a week or else they're constipated. That couldn't be further from the truth, although it's a common misconception. What constitutes "normal" is individual and can vary from three bowel movements a day to three a week. You'll know if you're constipated because you'll be straining a lot in the bathroom, you'll produce unusually hard stools, and you'll feel gassy and bloated.
Laxatives Aren't No. 1
It's not a good idea to use laxatives as the first line of attack when you're constipated. They can become habit-forming to the point that they damage your colon. Some laxatives inhibit the effectiveness of medications you're already taking, and there are laxatives that cause inflammation to the lining of the intestine.
Conventional thinking on laxatives is that if you must take one, find one that's psyllium- or fiber-based. Psyllium is a natural fiber that's much gentler on the system than ingredients in many of the other products available today.
Now that you understand what it means to be constipated, it's time to learn some tried and ture home remedies for this disorder. Go to the next section to learn ways that you can find relief from constipation in your very own kitchen.
Eat 6 ounces of grain products each day. Grain products include cereals, breads and starchy vegetables (such as corn, green peas, potatoes and lima beans). Whenever possible, choose whole grains such as whole-wheat bread and whole-grain cereal. To get a big dose of fiber early in the day, eat high-fiber cereal for breakfast. Check the labels on cereal boxes; anything with more than 5 or 6 grams of fiber per serving qualifies as high fiber. If you don't like high-fiber cereals, try mixing them in with your usual cereal and increasing the amount of high-fiber cereal over time.
Also, try making barley a permanent addition to your diet. It can relieve constipation and keep you regular. Buy some barley flour, flakes and grits, and add some barley grain to vegetable soup or stew.
Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables. Select a variety, including sweet potatoes, apples, berries, apricots, peaches, pears, oranges, prunes, corn, peas, carrots, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower. And opt for the whole produce over juice as much as possible; a glass of orange juice, for instance, provides 0.1 grams of fiber, while eating an orange gives you 2.9 grams.
Apples. Eat an hour after a meal to prevent constipation.
Apple juice and apple cider. These are natural laxatives for many people. Drink up and enjoy!
Bananas. These may relieve constipation. Try eating two ripe bananas between meals. Avoid green bananas, because they'll actually make your problem worse.
Raisins. Eat a handful daily, an hour after a meal.
Rhubarb. This is a natural laxative. Cook it and eat it sweetened with honey, or bake it in a pie. Or, create a drink with cooked, pureed rhubarb, apple juice and honey.
Bump up your fiber intake by switching from refined foods to less-refined foods whenever possible. Switch from a highly processed cereal to a whole-grain cereal, move from heavily cooked vegetables to less-cooked vegetables, and choose whole-grain products over products made with white flour. A serving of white rice has 0.5 grams of fiber; a serving of brown rice contains 2.4. And while a serving of potato chips has only 0.6 grams of fiber, a serving of popcorn supplies 2.5 grams.
Sometimes, a little extra dietary fiber is all you need to ensure regularity. Fiber, the indigestible parts of plant foods, adds mass to the stool and stimulates the colon to push things along. Fiber is found naturally in fruits, vegetables, grains and beans (although refining and processing can significantly decrease their fiber content). Meats, chicken, fish and fats come up empty-handed in the fiber category. The current recommendations for daily dietary fiber are 20 to 35 grams, but most people eat only 10 to 15 grams a day. Fiber supplements may be helpful, but you're better off getting your fiber from foods, which supply an assortment of other essential nutrients as well. To avoid getting gassy, increase the fiber in your diet gradually, and be sure you drink plenty of water so the fiber can move smoothly through your digestive system.
Take 2 tablespoons of blackstrap molasses before going to bed to relieve constipation. Molasses is too high in calories to use it as a daily preventative, but on an occasional basis, it can help to get you moving. It has a pretty strong taste, though, so you may want to add it to milk, fruit juice, or, for an extra-powerful laxative punch, prune juice.
Honey is also a very mild laxative. Try taking 1 tablespoon three times a day, either by itself or mixed into warm water. If it doesn't work on its own, you may have to pep it up by mixing it half and half with blackstrap molasses. Or, you can also mix 1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar and 1 teaspoon honey in a glass of water. Keep in mind, however, that honey (like molasses) is high in calories, so use it as an occasional laxative, not a daily preventative.
Dried beans and legumes, whether they're pinto beans, red beans, lima beans, black beans, navy beans or garbanzo beans, are excellent sources of fiber. Many people don't like them because of the gassiness they may cause. Cooking beans properly, however, can ease this problem considerably. Plus, if you add beans to your diet gradually, you'll minimize gassiness.
The bitter-tasting constituents in coffee, and all bitter-tasting foods, stimulate the digestive tract. If you don't like coffee, try an herb called Oregon grape. The root of this plant and some close cousins such as barberry have been used safely since ancient times to overcome occasional constipation. Mix 1/2 teaspoon Oregon grape tincture in water and sip slowly before eating for best results.
These seeds provide roughage and bulk, and they soften the contents of the intestines, which makes elimination easier. Eat no more than 1/2 ounce daily, and drink lots of water as you take the seeds. You may also sprinkle them on salads and other foods, but again, no more than 1/2 ounce. Sesame is also available in a butter or paste and in Middle Eastern dips, such as tahini.
Safflower, soybean and other vegetable oils can be just the cure you need, as they have a lubricating action in the intestines. Take 2 to 3 tablespoons a day, only until the problem is gone (not on an everyday basis). And remember that on those days when you increase your intake of oils, balance the calorie count by lowering your consumption of butter. Otherwise, you risk packing on extra pounds as you seek relief from constipation. If you don't like taking oil straight from the spoon, mix the oil with herbs and lemon juice or vinegar to use as salad dressing. The combination of the oil and the fiber from the salad ought to fix you right up.
Exercise not only boosts your fitness level but also promotes regularity. When you are active, so are your bowels -- and the more sedentary you are, the more slowly your bowels move. That may partially explain why older people, who tend to be less active, and those who are bedridden are prone to constipation. So, gear up and get moving. You don't have to run a marathon; a simple walking workout doesn't take much time and can be very beneficial. When it comes to regularity, even a little exercise is better than none at all.
A number of prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause constipation. If you're currently taking any medication, you might want to ask your doctor or pharmacist whether it could be causing your constipation. Among the drugs that can cause constipation are calcium-channel blockers taken for high blood pressure, beta blockers, some antidepressants, narcotics and other pain medications, antihistamines (to a lesser degree), certain decongestants and some antacids. Antacids that contain calcium or aluminum are binding and can cause constipation; antacids that contain magnesium tend not to cause constipation. If you are unsure what's in your antacid, check the label or ask your pharmacist or doctor.
We're all born with a reflex to defecate a short time after we're fed, and as babies, that's what we did. With socialization, we learn to control our bladders and bowels, and we tend to inhibit this reflex. Work on reviving this innate tendency by choosing one mealtime a day and trying to have a movement after it; you may be able to teach your body to pass a stool at the same time each day. (This works better with younger people than with seniors.) By following that routine every day, whether you have to go or not, and soon it may very well become your time.
If you suffer frequent bouts of constipation, it's possible that your body is reacting to certain foods that you're consuming. By keeping a detailed log of what you eat, you'll see which foods are clogging you up.
Consuming at least eight glasses of water a day not only improves your general health, but also helps moisten the intestines so that the bowels move easily.
People sometimes suppress the urge to have a bowel movement because they're busy or have an erratic schedule, or because they don't want to use public bathrooms. If at all possible, heed the call when you feel it.
For more information about digestive problems, view our main Home Remedies page.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.
Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.
Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.
ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:
Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.