Nutrition for Constipation
Constipation, or difficulty having a bowel movement, is a common problem. About four million Americans have chronic constipation lasting three months or more in which they strain to produce hard, dry stool. Although over-the-counter laxative drugs are available to treat constipation, many people prefer to avoid pharmaceutical treatment. Luckily, most constipation can be easily treated or prevented by changes in nutrition. The key to treatment is to correct nutritional deficiencies. This generally means eating a diet high in fiber and increasing the amount of water consumed during the day.
Nutritional and Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Constipation
Most constipation can be controlled through nutritional and lifestyle changes. These changes include:
- Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in animal products. Vegans and vegetarians naturally have a high-fiber diet.
- Choose whole grains and whole grain products over refined grains.
- Drink a minimum of eight glasses of water a day.
- Avoid processed and refined foods, as they often are low in fiber.
- Make a practice of reading the nutrition labels on processed foods.
- Avoid pharmaceutical laxatives; choose a natural alternative such as psyllium.
- Exercise regularly. Moderate daily exercise helps promote regular bowel function.
What is Fiber and How Does It Help Constipation?
Dietary fiber is the material in the cell walls of plants that holds the plant upright and gives it structure. When people eat plant food, this material is not digested, and it passes through the digestive system relatively unchanged. Two types of fiber are found in plants: insoluble fiber and soluble fiber. Both are important in avoiding constipation.
Insoluble fiber adds bulk to the waste or stool as it moves through the colon. It does not provide energy or calories. Instead, by increasing the volume of waste, insoluble fiber stimulates the walls of the intestine to contract. This process is called peristalsis, and it moves the waste through the colon.
The food entering the colon is a watery, slushy mixture. By the time waste leaves the body it is solid, and most of the water has been absorbed into the body. The more frequently the intestinal walls contract, the faster waste material moves out of the body. This means there is less time for water to be reclaimed from the waste, so the stool remains soft, moist, and easy to pass.
Good sources of insoluble fiber include whole grains and foods made from whole grains, bran and breakfast cereals containing bran, brown rice, and raw carrots, celery, and cucumbers. Processing of grains often removes some or all of the fiber. For example, while brown rice is a good source of fiber; white rice is not.
Soluble fiber is material that is dissolved in water inside plant cells. It also does not provide energy to the body. Its nutritional value lies in forming a gel-like substance that retains water and helps keep stool soft. Good sources of soluble fiber include oatmeal and other foods containing oats, foods containing dried beans, peas, or lentils, and apples, pears, and citrus fruit.
How Much Fiber is Enough Fiber?
Fiber not only prevents constipation, it also protects against heart disease by lowering cholesterol levels. Some studies have found that a nutritious high-fiber diet also protects against colon cancer; however, other studies have found no relationship between fiber in the diet and colon cancer.
In the United States, the National Academy of Sciences has developed recommendations on the amount of fiber that should be consumed daily, these are:
- 19 grams for children ages 1-3 years
- 25 grams for children ages 4-8 years
- 31 grams for boys ages 9-13 years
- 38 grams for men ages 14-50 years
- 30 grams for men over age 50
- 26 grams for girls ages 9-18 years
- 25 grams for women ages 19-50
- 21 grams for women over age 50
- 28 grams for pregnant women of any age
- 29 grams for breastfeeding women of any age
Individuals who are chronically constipated may need to exceed these amounts of fiber. For people with no other digestive problems, there is practically no health risk in doing so. In the United States, federal law requires that the total amount of dietary fiber be listed on the nutrition label of all processed foods.
Psyllium—A Dietary Supplement for Constipation
People who are unable to eat a high-fiber diet but who do not want to use pharmaceutical laxatives have a natural alternative in the form of psyllium. Psyllium is the seed from plants of the genus Plantago. Psyllium has been used in Ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, and Native American medicine for hundreds of years.
Psyllium acts by both increasing the volume of stool and increasing the amount of water it contains. This occurs because the seed is coated with a material called mucilage that becomes moist and gummy and also swells when exposed to water. Both traditional and alternative health care providers accept psyllium as a dietary supplement for treating constipation. It normally can be taken indefinitely with no adverse affects. Psyllium is available in health food stores and is sold in mainstream pharmacies under the names Fiberall and Nutracil.
Family Doctor.org has an article titled “Fiber: How to Increase the Amount in Your Diet” posted at that outlines simple ways to increase fiber consumption.
The Alternative Medicine Foundation has extensive information on psyllium use, research, and safety.