Constipation is a minor ailment that millions of people deal with on a daily basis. Estimates place as many as 40-60% of older people suffering from the condition, and many younger people besides.
Constipation has a number of different causes. Aging alone isn't one of them, but aging contributes, due to the other limitations on your body and your lifestyle.
- Many medications you may end up taking as you get older, particularly opioid pain medications, can cause constipation as a side effect.
- Physical activity helps the bowels move, so as you age and get less active, you back up.
- Lack of fiber or water in your diet can back you up as well. Fiber holds water in the bowel longer, and that keeps stool soft.
Laxatives are the usual go-to for constipation, but they're not usually a good idea. The laxative stimulants you buy from the pharmacy will certainly get you moving again, but your body may come to depend on them. You could find that, when you don't take laxatives, you don't have bowel movements. That dependency is hard to break, and dangerous besides.
Luckily, there are a variety of all-natural, non-stimulant options to deal with constipation. We've listed as many as we know below.
The number one thing you can do to encourage bowel movements is to drink more water. When water lingers in the intestines, stool absorbs it and softens. The longer stool sits, the more water your intestines draw out of it as part of digestion. Dehydration leads to constipation, and drinking more water can soften the stool to get it moving again.
Note that this largely works only if your bowels are healthy. Some people have disorders that include dysfunction in the digestive system preventing motion in the intestines. Laxatives don't necessarily help with this, and you'll want to talk to your doctor for more medical treatment options.
As mentioned above, fiber is critical for bowel regularity. Doctors recommend aiming for at least 25 grams of fiber per day for women, or 38 grams for men. Check out this chart for high-fiber food options to add to your diet.
Alternatively, you can take a fiber supplement. Metamucil is the typical go-to in popular culture, but there are dozens if not hundreds of fiber products you can try, including gummies. Try to spread your fiber out throughout the day, rather than taking it all at once.
Aloe Vera is a naturally soothing gel you can eat as part of your diet. It helps with inflammation that can lead to constipation, and it's almost a mechanical laxative, in that it helps lubricate your intestines and reduces the chance of impaction.
Aloe Vera plants contain aloe latex, the milky substance that comes from the rind of the fronds when you cut them. Normally, you filter these out, because they include a toxic substance called aloin. However, aloe latex also contains anthraquinones, which are a natural laxative.
Be very careful taking this for constipation. It can help alleviate the problem, but if you poison yourself, you're not improving your health. Use only the bare minimum amount of aloe latex in aloe juice.
A huge number of teas on the market are labeled detox teas. Our version is a green tea base with senna, spearmint, chamomile, peppermint, cinnamon, fennel, dandelion, and pineapple. It has a wide range of benefits, including stimulant effects that give you energy and help you burn fat, as well as anti-inflammatory benefits.
As anyone with a morning coffee habit can attest, caffeine can do wonders for getting the bowels moving. Try taking some of this detox tea after breakfast, then heading to the restroom to sit for a while. Doctors generally recommend sitting for around 10 minutes, to see if your body gets the urge. With the water and other tea ingredients in your system, we bet you will.
Chia is a natural ingredient that is very high in fiber. Adding some chia seeds to your breakfast routine, or blending them into a smoothie or shake to drink later in the day, gives you plenty of fiber to help keep your bowels moving, or kick-start them when they stall out.
Most berries are naturally high in fiber. They contain two kinds of fiber, as well. Soluble fibers are fibers that absorb water as they pass through your digestive system. This forms the basis of soft stool and can soften the existing stool. Insoluble fibers don't absorb water, but rather form a denser stool that helps your body mechanically move things along. Berries are also juicy, and that juice is largely water, so that helps too.
Buckthorn is scientifically known as Cascara sagrada and is a natural laxative. It actually works by lightly irritating the bowels, which stimulates your body into trying to get rid of whatever is causing the irritation, usually by purging the entire system. Used in short term doses, it works well. Just be careful not to use it too long or too often; prolonged use can cause electrolyte imbalances and liver failure.
Psyllium is a common treatment for constipation because it's a natural fiber. It's generally used as a treatment for chronic constipation, so it may not be as good for one-off issues, but you can certainly give it a try. It's a member of the plantain family, and it can cause allergic reactions in some people, so be aware of that before you try it out.
Senna is one of the ingredients in detox tea, but it can also be found in pill form at most pharmacies if you want to try it on its own. The fruit is gentler than the leaf, but both of them work the same way. It's powerful enough that it's often used to purge the digestive system before surgery, in one instance of modern medicine using an herbal remedy because of how effective it is. Just be aware that using too much of it, too often, can lead to liver damage.
Slippery elm is a variety of the elm tree and the herbal remedy comes from the bark. It works by irritating the intestines, which stimulates the body into generating a mucous called mucilage that coats the intestines and prevents whatever is irritating them from continuing to irritate them. This mucous is slippery and helps get constipated stool moving again.
Bear in mind that mucilage is there to prevent the intestines from absorbing harmful ingredients, but it doesn't discriminate. That means it can inhibit the uptake of certain medications, so talk to your doctor before using it.
Kefir is a liquid and has high water content, but it does more than just introduce water into your system. It's a fermented dairy beverage, and that means it includes plenty of healthy, beneficial gut bacteria your body normally uses to keep balanced and healthy. In other words (and you might already know this) it's a probiotic.
Probiotics in general can help with constipation by encouraging overall gastrointestinal health. Kefir is better than most other probiotics and is easy to drink on a daily basis. In fact, you want to consume around 500 ml of kefir every day for the best effect on regularity. Use it to help alleviate chronic constipation. It might not do much against acute, temporary constipation, but it won't hurt, so feel free to try it there as well.
Osmotic laxatives are laxative ingredients that absorb water from the body and bring it to the intestines, with an aim at softening stool, encouraging healthy bacteria growth, and moving stool along through the digestive tract. There are several relatively organic osmotic laxatives on the market. These include lactulose, sorbitol, and magnesium citrate. In fact, magnesium citrate is one of the most commonly recommended laxatives for over the counter use.
Oils in general can help mechanically lubricate the intestines. We don't really recommend just chugging a bottle of olive oil or anything like that, though. You'll probably vomit if you do. Instead, consider smaller doses of specific oils.
Castor oil is one such oil with potent laxative effects. In addition to being an oil, when your body digests it, it produces ricinoleic acid, which causes laxative effects in the digestive tract. It's an unsaturated fatty acid, and it binds with specific receptors in the intestines that stimulate muscles into inducing a bowel movement.
Olive oil also works as a laxative. It's a mechanical laxative, simply lubricating the digestive system and allowing impacted stool to slip along and out. Again, don't drink too much of it, but a small dose can help move things along.
The tangy celery-like vegetable is usually used alongside strawberries in a pie, but it's also a potentially useful laxative plant. It contains a compound called "Sennoside-A", which works in the body to decrease levels of AQP3. Don't worry about what that is (or feel free to look it up, if you're interested in biology). Suffice it to say that it's a protein responsible for regulating water levels in the bowels. When it's suppressed, your bowels retain more water, and that softens the stool.
Rhubarb also has a bunch of fiber in it, though if you're using more than one or two of the ingredients on this list, you're probably getting plenty of fiber.
Prunes, the dried form of plums, are a common laxative in popular culture. They're common because they're effective, not just because some farmer's almanac in the 1700s said they worked. Prunes have a lot of natural fiber in them, which as you well know by now, is a good thing for bowel movements. They also contain sorbitol, one of the sugar-based osmotic laxatives we mentioned above. It's a double-whammy of laxatives in one small, relatively tasty package.
As mentioned up above, coffee contains caffeine, and caffeine is a natural laxative. The amount of caffeine in coffee, along with the tannins and other ingredients in the beverage, can help stimulate the bowel into moving. Many routine coffee drinkers experience regular morning bowel movements after their first cup. It can be quite effective, so give it a try.
While it's not really an herbal remedy, sometimes physical activity is necessary to help with constipation. Physical exercise helps mechanically break up an impacted or hardened stool and can help with both moving water through your digestive system and stimulating blood flow to the affected area. It may be uncomfortable, but moderate exercise can work wonders.
When is Constipation Too Serious for Natural Remedies?
Constipation happens to all of us sooner or later, and most of the time it either clears up within a day or so or can be cleared up with one of the many natural remedies listed above. However, it can be much more serious, and in some cases, you will want to see a doctor rather than rely on herbs and fruits.
When should you visit the doctor?
- If you have sudden onset constipation with accompanying cramping and/or inability to pass gas.
- If you have black stool or blood in your stool.
- If you have rectal pain.
- If you have severe pain in your abdomen and bloating.
- If you have sudden, unexplained weight loss accompanying constipation.
In these cases, you may have a much more serious condition that causes constipation, or is caused by constipation. Serious bowel impactions can cause physical blockages, and all the laxatives in the world won't help. Impactions can also tear the intestines, which can cause infections and other serious conditions. If you have any of the above, see a doctor as soon as possible.
Additionally, if you have alternating constipation and diarrhea, you might have a condition known as Alternative Irritable Bowel Syndrome. This, also known as IBS-A or IBS-M (for Mixed), is characterized by a cycle of alternating diarrhea and constipation with very little regularity along the way. This is also something you may want to get a doctor to diagnose, so you can start managing symptoms.