Constipation. Whether we like to talk about it or not, it‘s an incredibly common health condition that’s likely to bother us all at some point in our lives.
In fact, the NHS estimates that one in every seven adults, and one in every three children, has constipation at any one time.
If you’re suffering from this incredibly uncomfortable and often painful feeling, then it’s important to know the symptoms of constipation and how to relieve constipation so that next time it hits, you know what to do – whilst avoiding any embarrassing situations!
Here we will explain the causes of constipation, the signs to look out for, together with a selection of the best ways to stop constipation fast, including natural laxatives, foods for constipation relief and other natural remedies to cure the blight of a constipated bowel.
What is constipation?
Constipation is very common and actually affects people of all ages (although the severity can vary from person to person). It can either mean you’re not having regular bowel movements, or that you’re unable to empty your bowel completely. This may result in the stools being hard, lumpy, unusually large or small, and may even cause pain.
Consultant Gastroenterologist Simon Smale, and advisor to the IBS Network, suggests that constipation is characterised by infrequent bowel movements (less than three a week) where stools are lumpy and hard causing you to strain to pass them or experience incomplete evacuation.
What are the symptoms of constipation?
Not sure if you’re suffering from constipation? There are a number of symptoms you may be experiencing if you have the condition. A usual amount of time to go to the toilet does vary from person to person – some people may go more than once a day, while for others it’s normal to go only every three or four days. As a rule, passing stools may have become more difficult and less frequent than usual for you.
Other symptoms may include stomach pain and cramps, feeling bloated, sick and losing your appetite.
What are the causes of constipation?
Identifying the exact reason why you might be suffering from constipation could be tricky, as there are many lifestyle factors that could be causing the condition. The main factors that could be causing constipation are:
• Not eating enough fibre, such as fruit, vegetables and cereals
• Changing your routine or lifestyle (particularly your eating habits)
• Ignoring the urge to pass stools
• Immobility or an inactive lifestyle
• Side effects of certain medications
• Not drinking enough fluids
• Anxiety or depression
The good news is that it can be extremely simple to help constipation and in many cases some simple lifestyle changes, and eating foods for constipation, can make a huge difference and avoid the need for medication or a visit to the doctor.
This does also mean that the best cure for your constipation might not be the same as the next person – so you need to try out these suggestions and see what works best for you.
1. Use a toilet footstool
Type ‘toilet footstool’ into Google and you’ll be inundated with options, from a sleek wooden design, to a £3 white plastic stool. But why do we need one?
‘If you’re constipated I suggest raising your feet onto a footstool while you are on the loo. This mimics the ‘squatting’ position that is a more natural defecating position for humans than sitting on a toilet ever was. That’s what we did in the jungle and it’s what we’re designed to do,’ says Simon Smale.
Giulia Enders, author of ‘Charming Bowels’, also says we’ve been going to the toilet all wrong. She told the Guardian that squatting is much more effective, and helps constipation, because the closure mechanism of the gut is not designed to ‘open the hatch completely’ when we’re sitting down: it’s like a kinked hose. We can iron out this kink by sitting with our feet on a little stool and leaning forward!
2. Drink up, the right way
Simon explains: ‘Dehydration is often a contributing factor to constipation, so it is important to make sure you’re drinking enough water, however you should avoid excess caffeine, alcohol and fizzy drinks.’ He adds: ‘Limit yourself to two cups of coffee a week, instead of a day. Water comes with an added bonus as it will help lubricate your gut to keep everything moving; if water feels too boring try a herbal tea for healthy flavour hit.’
If you’re suffering from constipation, it’s important to increase your daily intake of fibre. Aim to eat at least 18-30g of fibre a day. A high fibre diet include fruit, vegetables, bran-based cereals, wholegrain and wholemeal rice and bread, as well as nuts and beans.
According to the NHS, having a routine around your toilet trips can make a huge difference when it comes to stopping constipation. ‘Work out a routine of a place and a time of day when you are comfortably able to spend time on the toilet. Respond to your bowel’s natural pattern: when you feel the urge, do not delay’, they say.
5. Keep moving!
Not an exercise lover? It’s time to book yourself into a workout. Simon explains that ‘20 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three to five times a week, depending on your ability, is likely to have a positive effect on your gut motility and bowel function. A significant number of people avoid doing exercise because they are worried about their bowels, therefore I recommend to plan it at times of the day your bowels are more settled,’ says Simon. If you are worried about bowel activity whilst exercising, think about where the toilets are nearby. New to exercise? Start with a 15 minute workout to improve your strength, fitness and balance.
Did you know that pure olive oil can also help relieve constipation as a natural laxative? It’s thought that the oil works to stimulate your digestive system and get things moving through your colon (and what’s more, it can be taken regularly if you suffer from constipation a lot). Knock back a tablespoon first thing (before eating anything else) – you can add a little lemon juice to disguise the flavour if you like!
7. Get fruity
The high citric acid content in lemons makes them great at getting things moving in your digestive system. Try adding the juice of one lemon to a glass of water – you’ll be getting the fluids you need to keep constipation at bay while adding a kick of stimulation from the lemons.
8. Caffeine fix
Coffee is a tricky one and should be approached with caution if you are constipated, the simple fact being that because it’s a diuretic, having too much of it can make you wee more, therefore dehydrating you and making it more likely that you will become constipated in the first place. Having said that, caffeine is a natural stimulant for the digestive system and will make you go, just don’t overdo it! Read more about the health benefits of tea and coffee.
9. Herbal tea
Herbal teas, especially peppermint, can also help to relax an uncomfortable stomach. The naturally contained methanol works to ease bloating and eases stools through the intestine. Ideally drink after meals and before bedtime for the maximum affect.
10. Prune power
An oldie but a goodie, it’s almost the law that when we think of toilet troubles we think of prunes as THE food that can relieve constipation fast! That’s because as well as being high in fibre, prunes also contain ‘dihydroxyphenyl isatin’, a compound which gets the colon working.
11. Pop a probiotic
‘Patients often ask me if they should take a probiotic to help with their symptoms, and there is a growing body of evidence that probiotics may benefit symptoms of IBS, including constipation,’ says Simon.
He recommends looking for a probiotic that is clinically proven though. We love Alflorex (30 capsules one month supply, £24.95, precisionbiotics.com)