Can food be medicine? Sometimes, yes. It’s becoming clear in recent years that what you eat can be highly effective in preventing or reversing some health problems, especially chronic constipation.
Constipation is a symptom, not a disease. There are some serious medical conditions that can cause chronic constipation. Make sure you see your doctor for a medical evaluation. If you are healthy and looking for safe and effective long-term relief for chronic constipation, you might find help on your grocer’s shelves. Hundreds of foods and plant-based fiber products are available to relieve constipation — naturally.
What is fiber?
Dietary fiber refers to the edible parts of plants or carbohydrates that cannot be digested. Fiber is in all plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. You can also find a form of fiber called chitin in the shells of crustaceans such as crab, lobster, and shrimp.
Is all fiber the same?
No, some fibers are soluble in water and others are insoluble. Soluble fiber slows digestion and helps you absorb nutrients from food. Insoluble fiber draws water into and adds bulk to your stool, helping the stool pass more quickly through the intestines.
Most plant foods contain some of each kind of fiber. Foods containing high levels of soluble fiber include dried beans, oats, oat bran, rice bran, barley, citrus fruits, apples, strawberries, peas, and potatoes. Foods high in insoluble fiber include wheat bran, whole grains, cereals, seeds, and the skins of many fruits and vegetables.
Which type of fiber is best to ease constipation?
Go for whole-grain breads, cereals, and pastas. Cereal fibers generally have cell walls that resist digestion and retain water within the cellular structures. Wheat bran can be highly effective as a natural laxative.
What other foods are high in fiber?
Eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and legumes such as beans and lentils. The fiber found in citrus fruits and legumes stimulates the growth of colonic flora, which increases the stool weight and the amount of bacteria in the stool. Encouraging the growth of certain bacteria in the colon may help promote a healthy intestine.
How much fiber do we need daily?
The average American gets about 15 grams of fiber daily, much less than we need, according to the American Dietetic Association. Women younger than 51 should aim for 25 grams of fiber daily. Men younger than 51 should aim for 38 grams of fiber daily. Women 51 and older should get 21 grams of fiber daily. Men 51 and older should get 30 grams daily. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends eating at least nine servings (2 cups) of fiber-filled fruits and vegetables each day, including apples, oranges, broccoli, berries, pears, peas, figs, carrots, and beans. Some people get stomach cramps and gas when they increase their intake of fiber. Change your diet gradually and increase fluids to reduce discomfort.
Aren’t prunes a natural laxative?
Often called “Nature’s Remedy," prunes contain sorbitol, which has a natural, laxative effect in the body. Dried plums (yes, prunes!) are also high in disease-fighting antioxidants and have both insoluble and soluble fiber. One cup of pitted, uncooked prunes contains 12 grams of fiber. Three dried plums have 3.9 grams of fiber.
What if whole-grain fiber and fruits don’t help constipation?
Then try foods that contain psyllium seed husk, bran, and methylcellulose, or try fiber supplements. These natural products increase stool weight and have a laxative effect. Be sure to drink a lot of water when taking any of these products, as they can clog up the intestines and cause constipation. Fiber must have water in order to sweep the colon and move the stool out of your body.
When should you use a psyllium powder?
It’s best to get fiber from food. But if you can’t eat enough fruits and vegetables to make a difference, then opt for fiber supplements. Examples include psyllium, methylcellulose, wheat dextrin, and calcium polycarbophil. With psyllium powder, mix the powder in a glass of water one to three times daily. Be sure to drink enough water along with this psyllium powder drink. The drink may cause you to feel bloated until you get used to the fiber.
When does fiber not work for ending constipation?
A high-fiber diet ends chronic constipation for many people. But those who have slow transit or pelvic floor dysfunction may respond poorly to increased dietary fiber. If you have a change in frequency of bowel movements and develop acute constipation, talk to your doctor. The constipation could be caused by an underlying medical condition.
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “Fiber: How to increase the amount in your diet."
- American Dietetic Association (ADA): “Plum Good."
- Institute of Medicine.
- McIlwain H. A Diet for a Pain-Free Life, New York: Marlowe, 2007.
- Uptodate.com: “Patient information: High-fiber diet (Beyond the Basics),” Arnold Wald, MD.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture