Constipation affects roughly 2.5 million Americans.
Though common, constipation can cause discomfort, embarrassment, and in some cases, pain significant enough to disrupt your daily life.
Constipation is generally defined as difficulty passing bowel movements. It is often accompanied by hard or dry stools.
Not many people are comfortable talking about constipation. However, there are options that can provide relief, some as simple as food choices.
Understanding which foods can help you go to the bathroom can help you make the right dietary choices when you’re feeling constipated.
Identifying foods that encourage and support healthy bowel movements can also help prevent constipation in the future.
Importance of Healthy Bowel Movements
The bowels consist of your intestines, rectum, and anus.
Having healthy bowel movements or stools is an essential part of good bowel health and overall health.
Having regular and healthy bowel movements also helps to keep the muscles that control your lower digestive tract and pelvic floor strong.
Defining what healthy bowel activity is will vary from person to person.
In most cases, you should aim to:
- Have a bowel movement between three times a week and three times a day
- Have well-formed stools that are easy to pass
- Have stools that are brown or brown-green in color
- Avoid straining your muscles when having a bowel movement
If you’re struggling to accomplish the above, you may have constipation.
Constipation is very common and affects most people at least once in their lifetime.
Symptoms of constipation include difficulty having regular bowel movements.
Additional symptoms of constipation can include:
- Having lumpy or hard stools
- Straining to have bowel movements
- Feeling like there’s a blockage in the rectum
- Feeling like you’re unable to empty the stool from your rectum completely
- Needing help to have a bowel movement, like using your hands to press on your stomach
In most cases, mild constipation lasts only a few days.
But if you’re having difficulty passing bowel movements for several weeks or longer, you may have chronic constipation.
Foods That Make You Poop
Several groups of foods can help treat both mild and chronic constipation (or prevent it from happening).
High fiber foods
In general, increasing your fiber intake can help increase the weight of your stool and speed up its movement through your digestive tract.
Most adults should get between 25-and 31 grams of fiber each day.
However, if you’re starting from a low-fiber diet, increasing the grams of fiber you consume slowly is important to avoid unwanted side effects like gassiness and bloating.
Food groups that are high in fiber include:
- Fruits (dried fruits can be especially high in fiber)
- Legumes (like lentils, black beans, and chickpeas)
- Whole grains, such as cereals and bread
- Nuts (including almonds and pecans)
Flaxseed (also known as linseed) is a food that’s rich in polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and soluble fiber.
Because of its high fiber content, flaxseed can help speed up the movement of stool through the digestive tract, which can be especially helpful for mild or “functional” constipation.
Evidence has also shown that adding 10 grams of flaxseed to your daily diet can help to reduce constipation symptoms, reduce body weight, and improve glycemic and lipid levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
Kiwi is a good source of fiber and can help to promote bowel regularity in people with constipation.
One study also found that eating two kiwis per day for four weeks helped to improve bowel function, colon transit time, and bowel movement frequency in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and constipation.
Pears are high in water, fructose, and dietary fiber. Its high fructose and fiber content may help alleviate constipation.
When left unabsorbed, fructose can act as a natural laxative by bringing water to stools, making them easier and softer to pass.
Because of their high dietary fiber content, pears can also help to improve gut health and prevent constipation.
Specifically, probiotics may improve gut transit time, stool frequency, and stool consistency.
One type of probiotic that may be especially beneficial for constipation is B. lactis.
Prunes are dried plums that are especially high in fiber.
Evidence suggests that prunes may help promote healthy gastrointestinal (GI) function in general, but one systematic review shows that they may be very helpful at alleviating constipation.
In fact, prunes may be better at improving stool frequency and consistency than psyllium, a form of fiber that is often used to treat constipation.
Whole grains, in general, are good sources of fiber and can help to relieve and prevent constipation.
But one study found that rye bread specifically may be better at relieving constipation than wheat bread and certain types of laxatives.
Though not technically food, water is an important component of avoiding constipation.
Drinking enough water throughout the day can help prevent constipation and help treat mild cases of constipation caused by dehydration.
Limiting dehydrating beverages, like those that contain large quantities of caffeine and alcohol can also help.
In addition to choosing the right foods, there are other eating habits that can help to relieve or prevent constipation:
- Don’t skip meals
- Avoid ultra-processed or fast foods
- Eat a varied diet rich in whole foods
Causes of Constipation
There are many possible causes of constipation, including diet.
The most common cause of constipation is when waste moves too slowly through the colon, making fecal matter harder, drier, and more difficult to pass, also called “functional constipation.”
Additional possible causes of constipation include:
- Blockage or obstruction: Many factors can cause a blockage in the colon, rectum, or intestines, including certain cancers, including colon, rectal, or abdominal cancer, in which a tumor presses on the colon, blocking stool movement. A narrowing of the colon, also called a bowel stricture, can create an obstruction that causes constipation. Rectocele is a rectum bulge through the back wall of the vagina that can also create a constipation-causing blockage.
- Nerve problems: Several neurological conditions can affect the nerves and muscles in the rectum and colon. These conditions can cause many different symptoms, one of which is constipation. Neurological conditions that can cause constipation include multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke, and Parkinson’s disease.
- Pelvic muscle problems: Having trouble with your pelvic muscles can also contribute to constipation. Conditions that can cause chronic constipation include weakened pelvic muscles, anismus (the inability to relax pelvic muscles to have a bowel movement), or dyssynergia (when pelvic muscles don’t properly coordinate contraction and relaxation).
- Hormonal conditions: Medical conditions that affect hormones, including diabetes, overactive parathyroid gland (hyperparathyroidism), pregnancy, and underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), can cause constipation.
When to See a Medical Provider
If you’re experiencing symptoms of mild constipation, making a few changes to your diet is a good place to start to try and find relief at home.
Slowly increasing your fiber intake, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding ultra-processed and fast foods may help get your bowel movements regular again.
But, sometimes, a change to your diet or lifestyle isn’t enough to relieve your constipation.
If you’re suffering from chronic constipation that won’t go away, it’s important to reach out to your provider for help as soon as possible.
It’s also important to keep an eye out for more severe symptoms.
If you experience any of the below symptoms, seek emergency medical attention right away:
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K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
A randomized trial of the effects of flaxseed to manage constipation, weight, glycemia, and lipids in constipated patients with type 2 diabetes. (2018).
Constipation Is Relieved More by Rye Bread Than Wheat Bread or Laxatives without Increased Adverse Gastrointestinal Effects. (2010).
Daily intake of broccoli sprouts normalizes bowel habits in human healthy subjects. (2018).
Don’t bomb the bowel with laxatives. (2019).
Eating, Diet, & Nutrition for Constipation. (2018).
Increasing dietary fiber intake in terms of kiwifruit improves constipation in Chinese patients. (2007).
Kiwifruit improves bowel function in patients with irritable bowel syndrome with constipation. (2010).
Systematic Review of Pears and Health. (2015).
Systematic review: the effect of prunes on gastrointestinal function. (2014).
The effect of probiotics on functional constipation in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. (2014).