Constipation is a common problem, and there is some evidence that olive oil may help to relieve it.
The definition of constipation is when a person has fewer than three bowel movements per week or their bowel movements dry, hard, small, or difficult to pass. It is a common digestive problem that can affect people of all ages.
People have used olive oil for its nutritional, health, and other benefits for thousands of years. Researchers have linked its use to lower rates of heart disease, cholesterol, obesity, and many other conditions.
Some people use olive oil to relieve constipation.
When stools are hard and dry, they do not move easily through the bowel. This is constipation.
Olive oil may be a safe and healthy way to get stools moving again and relieve constipation.
The fats in olive oil can help smooth the insides of the bowel, making it easier for stools to pass. It can also help the stool hold in more water, keeping it softer.
One tablespoon of olive oil, taken on an empty stomach in the morning, may relieve constipation for many healthy adults.
People should not take more than one tablespoonful, however, as this can lead to diarrhea and cramps.
Constipation is common among people who are undergoing dialysis. A study of 50 people published in the Journal of Renal Nutrition in 2015 found that olive oil, flaxseed oil, and mineral oil were all equally effective at relieving symptoms in this group. The people took 4 milliliters (ml) of olive oil per day.
A team reporting in the World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2012 noted that "Olive oil and sweet almond oil can function as softeners if their intake exceeds the absorptive capacity of the small intestine."
They recommended a good intake of fiber to prevent constipation in the first place.
Can children use olive oil?
Babies and children with constipation should not take olive oil.
Instead, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend a small amount of apple or pear juice, Karo syrup, or pureed prunes for infants.
Toddlers and older children may get relief with high-fiber foods such as prunes, apricots, and whole grain cereals.
If dietary changes do not help, children should see a doctor for additional treatment.
Other health benefits of olive oil
Olive oil is not only helpful for constipation but appears to have other health benefits too.
It is a staple in the Mediterranean diet, and this diet is linked to a lower risk of certain diseases and longer life.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommend taking olive oil for better heart health due to its heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 recommend that for adults over the age of 19 years, 20 to 35 percent of calories should come from fats each day, and less than 10 percent of those should be saturated fats.
Although different kinds of olive oil are available in stores, extra virgin olive oil may have the most health benefits. When an oil is labeled "extra virgin," it means the fruit was simply pressed to extract the oil.
Other types such as "light" olive oil may have been extracted with chemicals or other processes. This can refine and filter out some of the natural olive compounds.
Extra virgin olive oil and other olive oil products are available to purchase online.
Other oils as constipation treatment
Using oils for constipation relief is not a new trend. Castor oil has been used for years to treat constipation, though its action differs from olive oil's mild effects.
Castor oil affects the muscles in the intestines, causing them to contract and move. This often stimulates the bowel to pass stools.
Sometimes people use castor oil to induce labor in an overdue pregnancy, as it can cause the uterus to contract.
Anyone who is pregnant should not use castor oil for constipation without first asking their doctor if it is safe to use.
Mineral oil and flaxseed oil help soften the stool in a similar manner to olive oil.
Lifestyle choices that can help prevent constipation or improve symptoms of mild constipation include:
- drinking more water
- getting more exercise
- eating more fiber
If these measures do not provide enough relief, over-the-counter laxatives may help.
Many treatment options are available, and work in different ways to relieve constipation:
Fiber supplements add bulk to stool and make it easier to pass. Examples include Citrucel, FiberCon, and Metamucil.
Stool softeners help get fluid into the stool and are often recommended after surgery or childbirth. Examples include docusate sodium (Colace).
Osmotic laxatives help the intestine hold more fluid, rather than absorb it. This helps soften stools. Examples include Milk of Magnesia, Miralax, and Sorbitol.
Lubricants help make the stool more slippery so it can easily pass out of the colon. Olive oil is a lubricant when people use it as a laxative. Other lubricants include mineral oil, Fleet, and Zymenol.
Stimulant laxatives cause contractions and movement in the bowel. In general, people should only use these with more serious cases of constipation and under a doctor's guidance. Examples include Correctol, Dulcolax, and Senocot.
People should use laxatives in moderation unless a doctor says otherwise. With frequent use, the bowel can become dependent on them for stimulating its muscles.
When to see a doctor
People who feel they cannot have a bowel movement without taking a laxative should talk to a doctor.
The doctor can offer advice on how to stop using laxatives and find other ways to relieve constipation.
Treating occasional constipation with olive oil or another product may help avoid discomfort and has health benefits.
Long-term constipation can be a sign of another health problem, or it may be a reaction to certain medications.
People whose bowel movements change suddenly, if symptoms are severe, or if stools are consistently hard, dry, or painful to pass, the individual should ask their doctor for advice.
If constipation last for several weeks or longer, long-term health problems can develop.
- hemorrhoids (piles), enlarged veins in the anus that can cause pain, irritation, bleeding, and itching
- small tears in the anus that can cause pain or itching
- a large mass of stool becoming stuck in the rectum
- a rectal prolapse, where the rectum slips out of its normal position
If constipation persists, it is important to seek medical help. It may be a sign of an underlying condition.
People equate constipation with not having a daily bowel movement, but the American Gastroenterological Association say this is not always the case.
A person with constipation may have a bowel movement every day, but their stools are dry and hard.
Others may only have bowel movements three times a week but have regular and soft stools.
The hardness and consistency of stool may be a better signal of constipation than the frequency of bowel movements.
Constipation is a common problem. It can happen when a person is traveling or has a change in routine. Certain foods can result in harder bowel movements in the short term.
Constipation is not usually serious, but it is often uncomfortable. It can cause stomach pain, bloating, and nausea. Short-term constipation typically goes away on its own after the person returns to normal routines and eating habits.
Anyone with long-term constipation should ask a doctor for advice.
A wide variety of factors can lead to constipation.
Some of the most common include:
- hormonal changes, for example during pregnancy or after delivery
- the use of certain medications, including water pills, antacids, prescription pain relievers, antidepressants, and iron supplements
- having too little fiber in the diet
- a lack of exercise
- certain health problems, such as an underactive thyroid or diabetes
- problems with the digestive system, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- recent surgery
- ignoring the urge to use the bathroom
Sometimes there may be no clear cause. Constipation is more likely to affect older adults and women.
How much olive oil should I use and how often should I use it to prevent constipation? If I use too much, will I have diarrhea?
Taking more than one tablespoon of any oil is very likely to cause diarrhea.
I suggest using olive oil as your frying oil or salad dressing oil. Using olive oil in food preparation is an effective way to get a daily dose of this healthy oil.Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.