Home remedies for constipation
Which cures for constipation actually work, and which are just old wives' tales? Our expert investigates
Constipation is a common digestive symptom that most of us will experience at some point. It can affect adults and children and is more common in pregnancy and the elderly.
You are probably constipated if:
- You haven’t had a bowel movement at least three times in the last week
- Your stool is often large and dry, hard or lumpy
- You strain or are in pain when trying to pass a bowel movement
The good news is you probably don’t need medication to address the constipation, as very often some everyday diet and lifestyle changes can make all the difference.
Here, we look at some of the home remedies that may help relieve constipation.
Constipation remedies: What works?
Drink more fluids
Dehydration is one of the most common reasons adults and children experience constipation. Without enough water in the body, the large intestine will take it from your stools, making them harder and drier and therefore difficult to pass.
Eat more fibre
For most people struggling with constipation, adding more fibre to their diet can help. In particular, insoluble fibre as it helps to increase weight to the stool and decrease bowel transit time. The best sources of insoluble fibre include wheat germ, oat bran, fruit and vegetables – as well as those traditional constipation 'cures', beans and lentils. However, it doesn’t work for everyone and for those who struggle with chronic constipation may find that adding more fibre can make things worse.
Probiotics and prebiotics
Research indicates that taking a multi-strain probiotic supplement (live bacteria that help colonise the gut microbiome) may work better on constipation than a single strain probiotic. It may take a few weeks before you start to see the benefits on constipation, but it's still worth including for long-term health and prevention.
Prebiotics can be similarly useful, feeding your gut microbiome for a healthier digestive system. Research indicates that taking a supplement or adding prebiotic foods your diet can be effective in helping relieve constipation by improving stool consistency, the number of bowel movements and bloating. Prebiotic foods include Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onion, leeks, asparagus, apples, flaxseeds, oat bran and wheat bran.
Kiwi fruit not only helps support a health gut microbiome, but regular consumption of kiwis has been shown to help reduce bowel transit time. One study included eating two kiwis a day for four weeks and they saw significant improvement in those struggling with constipation.
Squat on the loo
Between the rectum and the anus is a slight bend, which is naturally straightened when we squat down. But a sitting position (as when on the toilet) creates a stronger, 90-degree angle – which is not the best position for having a bowel movement. Research has shown the use of a ‘squatty potty’ positively helped bowel movement duration, straining patterns, and complete evacuation of the bowel.
Psyllium is a soluble fibre that can have a gentle bulking action to the stool and provide a gentle laxative effect. Some research suggests that it helps with improving constipation by increasing water in the stool as well as improving the gut microbiome.
Constipation remedies: Worth a try
Prunes are a good source of fibre, and help support a healthy gut microbiome. There is also some evidence that they add weight to the stool, which may help with better bowel movements.
Drinking coffee, for some, may help improve bowel movements as it can have a mild laxative effect, and without any concerns about it being a diuretic. Caffeinated coffee appears to be the most effective, but some found that those who consumed decaffeinated coffee also found it of benefit in stimulating a bowel movement. This is more to do with coffee’s natural acids that help to increase peristalsis, rather than the caffeine content. However, too much may lead to diarrhoea in some, so this isn’t an option for everyone.
Fermented foods include kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, and live yoghurts all contain beneficial bacteria. Including these foods regularly in your diet may not only help improve your gut microbiome but may also help with improving your bowel movements.
Stewed fruit, in particular apples, may help ease the symptoms of constipation. Apples are a great source of fibre, including insoluble fibre, which has been found to improve stool frequency. Stewing fruit can make them easier to digest if you struggle with higher-fibre foods.
Senna is a natural laxative that comes from the dried pods of the cassia tree. It's available in tablet form and may provide short-term relief of constipation in adults. It is not recommended for use in children without a doctor or pharmacist recommendation, long-term use or in those with certain medical conditions.
Glucomannan is a natural dietary fibre that is found in a root vegetable called konjac. It can be bought in tablet or powered form, or you can by konjac noodles. Some research has demonstrated that glucomannan moderately improved constipation in children and showed some benefit in adult bowel movement frequency.
Aloe vera juice
Constipation remedies: old wives’ tales
Currently, there is not enough clinical evidence that proves drinking lemon in water will help relieve constipation. The benefits of citrus appear to be more in the consumption of the actual fruit or the oils that are found in the peel.
Cod liver oil
Cod liver oil is a great source of vitamins A and D, which may help support health in several ways, but there is currently only anecdotal evidence that cod liver oil helps relieve the symptoms of constipation.
Constipation remedies: from the chemist
Try making changes to your diet and lifestyle first, but if you find that constipation is still a struggle then you may want to speak to a pharmacist and consider an over-the-counter remedy to help you pass a bowel movement more easily and comfortably.
These contain ingredients such as bisacodyl, senna or sodium picosulfate, and they help by stimulating the nerves that control the muscles lining your digestive tract. This encourages muscle contractions to move the stool along the colon. They usually take about 6-12 hours to work.
Stool softener laxatives
These types of laxatives work by increasing the fluid content of the stool, making them easier to pass. They usually contain the ingredient arachis oil or docusate sodium.
Typically containing methylcellulose or ispaghula husk, bulk-forming laxatives work by adding weight to the stool, which in turn helps simulate a bowel movement. They can come in tablet or powder form, and should work with a few days.
Suppositories are also available for adults those who struggle with occasional constipation. They typically contain glycerin and are inserted into the rectum, acting as a mild laxative.
These can help relieve constipation by drawing water into the large intestine and therefore the stool, softening it and making it easier to pass. They usually take a few days to work, and contain ingredient such as lactulose, macrogol or polyethylene glycol.
More like this
The bottom line
Constipation and effective treatment does vary from person to person, but making some dietary changes is a good place to start both for short-term and long-term relief. If you find that dietary changes and over-the-counter remedies provide little help, or you notice blood in the stool or unintentional weight loss, then you must speak to your GP.
Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.
All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.