What to Eat, Drink and Do to Relieve Constipation

Michael O. Schroeder

Come clean. It's not potty talk to acknowledge your difficulty going.

Maybe you don't poop for days at a time -- when you used to go regularly every day -- or when you do go, your stool is hard, dry and small, which can make going a strain and perhaps painful. Constipation is defined in different ways, just as individual experiences vary, but it often involves both these uncomfortable stool changes and less frequent bowel movements. Ultimately, you know your "regular." So if you haven't been feeling at your colonic best, experts say, take heed to find relief.

Consider medical and medication-related causes.

If the problem persists, see your doctor. Though frequently the cause of constipation isn't known, some medical conditions and medications can make it difficult to go. These range from neurologic conditions like Parkinson's disease that can also affect bowel function to severe depression as well as some drugs used to treat everything from depression to high blood pressure to allergies, explains Dr. Eamonn Quigley, section chief of gastroenterology at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston. Talk to your doctor about treating underlying health issues, or whether it's safe to switch or stop taking medications that cause constipation.

Exercise: To get things moving, get moving.

"It's a bit controversial, but there seems to be some role for regular exercise in maintaining regular bowel habits," Quigley says, according to research. That could include walking 10 to 15 minutes a day or engaging several times weekly in another aerobic activity, such as jogging or swimming. "Exercises help the intestines squeeze and relax and act more normally," says Dr. Amy Foxx-Orenstein, a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. For those with limited mobility, she adds, Pilates done lying on the floor or tai chi can also assist in stimulating blood flow and intestinal activity, which may help get things going.

Fiber is still king and queen of the throne.

It's recommended a person get at least 20 to 35 grams of fiber per day, depending on their daily calorie intake, says Molly Kimball, a registered dietitian with Ochsner Health System in New Orleans. She encourages patients to gradually increase their fiber intake, typically aiming for the higher side of that range -- or above. Eat both foods richer in soluble fiber, which absorbs water, such as oatmeal, nuts and blueberries or raspberries, and those richer in insoluble fiber, which doesn't absorb water -- like 100 percent whole-wheat bread and fruit skins -- to make stool larger, softer and easier to pass.

Stay properly hydrated.

"If you are truly dehydrated, you will be more constipated," Foxx-Orenstein says. Patients frequently pile on the fiber while taking in little fluids, experts say, and end up more constipated as result. However, a normal level of hydration suffices. No need to overzealously guzzle water. "One of the things that has been recommended a lot in the past to people is [to] increase your fluid intake [to] relieve your constipation," he says. "There's really no evidence for that." Even if it does send you to the bathroom more often.

Dried plums -- aka prunes -- are still the dietary standard in regularity.

Despite marketing efforts to give wrinkly, dried plums a face-lift -- calling them dried plums instead of prunes, for one -- the strong, indelicate association with relieving constipation remains, says Anne Dubner, a registered dietitian in Houston who sees some of Quigley's patients. That's because they really work to do just that, experts say; but eating other dried fruits, like apricots, can also help a person go, Dubner notes.

Dinner and a supplement

There's no shortage of ways to incorporate more fiber in your diet, from having it in cereal to eating veggies like broccoli and beans and other pulses that are loaded with the good stuff. However, with Americans on average eating only about half the daily recommended fiber, many struggle to get enough from their diet alone. Foxx-Orenstein says taking a fiber supplement can be a great way to make up the difference. She recommends those who choose to do so take it around dinner time to save any potential side effects, like bloating, for later in the day.

Start off the day with a hot drink -- and a quick dash to the bathroom.

Waking up and going in the morning after eating is a routine for some. If you're stopped up, don't skip breakfast. Instead, grab a bite to eat and a hot drink such as coffee or tea, Foxx-Orenstein says. The heat, eating and caffeine -- if you're able to take your drink caffeinated (it's OK if you can't) -- all stimulate colonic activity to get your day started with some movement.

Be strategic about caffeine.

Though it can help relieve constipation, prodigious amounts can make it harder to go. "Too much caffeine can have a bit of a dehydrating effect, but caffeinated beverages are actually gastric stimulants," Kimball says. "So having that cup of coffee or having that cup of tea can actually help with that GI motility, which basically means it gets you going." However, if you don't typically drink caffeine -- or if you're averse or have a health reason not to -- it's not recommended you start.

Probiotics: The good bacteria can help you go.

Kimball says any yogurt -- not just those that advertise they're good for gastrointestinal health -- can be a good source of probiotics that help relieve constipation. "I usually look for a low-sugar Greek yogurt," she says. Put it in a smoothie with unsweetened vanilla almond milk, berries and a couple tablespoons of ground or milled flaxseed. "That would be a real power shake right there," Kimball says. That is, to pump up activity in your colon. Or get probiotics from other sources, such as cultured cottage cheese or Kombucha, a fermented tea.

Go easy on deprivation diets.

Though foods affect different people in different ways, gastrointestinal and dietary experts say a high-protein/low- or no-carb diet and extremely low-fat, no-fat diets can all potentially increase constipation. "I have found that so many of my patients become very constipated when they go on a completely no-fat or extremely low-fat diet," Dubner says. "You need some lubrication." To go regularly, she instead recommends eating foods that contain healthy fats like avocado and olive oil; experts also say it's important to eat a mix of healthy fare -- like whole grains -- in all food groups.

Put the food away: Heed this advice; just don't read it while eating.

Constipation isn't dinner table talk for a reason. But if you want to relieve the issues you face, you may need to get comfortable with a topic that you'd probably prefer not to discuss with food in front of you. Here's another reason you should step away from the table: You have the urge to go. When your colon calls, Foxx-Orenstein says, make like a baby and answer it. Poop. The longer you wait, the harder it gets. That goes for you -- more straining -- and the poop itself.

Get in the proper position.

Skip the bathroom reading. With proper form, it shouldn't take longer than around 3 minutes to go, Foxx-Orenstein says: "It's excellent to have your knees up," ala your ancestors popping a squat on the open plain and above the "not ideal" 90-degree position modern toilets have you sitting, placing your feet on a short stool or a small trash can turned on its side for leverage. Take in a deep breath. "It increases your intra-abdominal and intrarectal pressure and that's oft times what needs to happen to make you evacuate easier," she says. Breathe out slowly and go.

'Regular' you could have 'Hollywood stool.'

Forget going No. 2. Aim for No. 4 on the Bristol Stool Scale, which essentially sizes up the quality and consistency of poop. Fiber will help you get to No. 4, Foxx-Orenstein says, "which is what I refer to sort of as the 'Hollywood stool' -- not that Hollywood is by any means perfect, but ... you don't want to have No. 1" -- hard pellets like a deer might drop -- "you don't want to have No. 7" -- so watery it's almost pee-ish. The goal: stool that's bulkier, softer and easier to pass. "Like that torpedo," she says. Which, ultimately, could relieve you from having to talk about poop again any time soon.


Michael Schroeder is a health editor at U.S. News. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at mschroeder@usnews.com.