Constipation is a common complaint that often results from the diet and lifestyle. Eating certain foods can help to improve the frequency of bowel movements.
The medical community defines constipation as a reduction in bowel movements or difficulty passing stools.
People who are constipated may have:
- hard, dry, or lumpy stools
- stools that look like small stones or marbles
- pain and discomfort during bowel movements
- a feeling of being unable to empty the bowels fully
- a loss of appetite due to a continual sense of fullness
- a slightly swollen belly
A person may also notice small streaks of bright red blood in the stools or on the toilet paper after wiping.
Everyone’s bowel habits are different, but people who are constipated usually have fewer than three bowel movements per week.
Constipation is very common. In the United States, around 16 out of every 100 adults have symptoms of constipation.
The risk of constipation increases with age. Approximately 33 out of every 100 adults over the age of 60 in the U.S. have symptoms of constipation.
In this article, we look at 14 foods that can promote bowel movements. We also explore the causes and treatments of constipation.
Everyone’s bowels respond to foods differently, but the following healthful, natural foods can help to relieve constipation:
Dehydration is a common cause of constipation, and drinking plenty of water can often help to ease or resolve the symptoms.
When a person becomes dehydrated, their intestines cannot add enough water to stools. This results in hard, dry, and lumpy stools and can lead to constipation.
2. Yogurt and kefir
Many dairy products, including yogurt and kefir, contain microorganisms known as probiotics.
Probiotics are often called “good” bacteria, and they may help to improve gut health and soften stools.
In a 2014 study, researchers investigated the use of an unflavored probiotic yogurt containing polydextrose, Lactobacillus acidophilus, and Bifidobacterium lactis to treat constipation.
The researchers found that eating 180 milliliters of this yogurt each morning for 2 weeks shortened the time it took waste to move through the bowels in people with chronic constipation.
Most beans, lentils, chickpeas, and peas are very high in fiber, which is a nutrient that promotes good digestion and reduces constipation.
A 2017 study found that 100 grams (g) of cooked pulses provides around 26 percent of the daily fiber intake recommended in the U.S.
4. Clear soups
Clear soups are nutritious and easy to digest. They also add moisture to hard, dense stools, which can soften them, making them easier to pass.
Warm liquids and foods are also generally easier to digest.
Prunes and prune juice are a time-tested home remedy for constipation in many parts of the world.
Prunes contain a lot of fiber, a nutrient known to ease and speed up bowel movements. Prunes also contain sorbitol and phenolic compounds that may have gastrointestinal benefits.
A 2014 review concluded that eating prunes may increase the frequency of bowel movements and improve stool consistency in people with constipation.
In most of the studies included in the review, the participants ate 100 g of prunes daily, or about 10 prunes.
6. Wheat bran
Wheat bran is another popular home remedy for constipation. It is rich in insoluble fiber, which can speed up the flow of materials through the intestines.
A 2013 study found that eating a breakfast cereal containing wheat bran every day for 2 weeks improved bowel function and reduced constipation in healthy women who did not usually eat much fiber.
Broccoli contains sulforaphane, a substance that may protect the gut and ease digestion.
Sulforaphane may also help to prevent the overgrowth of some intestinal microorganisms that can interfere with healthy digestion.
In a 2017 study, healthy people ate either 20 g of raw broccoli sprouts or 20 g of alfalfa sprouts every day for 4 weeks. The researchers found that the people who ate broccoli sprouts had fewer symptoms of constipation and quicker bowel movements.
8. Apples and pears
Apples and pears contain several compounds that improve digestion, including fiber, sorbitol, and fructose.
These fruits also contain high levels of water, which can help to ease digestion and prevent constipation.
To get the most benefit from apples and pears, eat them raw and whole, with the skin intact.
Grapes have a high skin-to-flesh ratio, which means that they are rich in fiber, and they also contain a lot of water.
To ease constipation, try eating a few handfuls of raw, washed grapes.
On average, 100 g of kiwi contains around 2–3 g of fiber, which can add bulk to stools and speed up the intestinal flow.
Kiwis also contain actinidine, an enzyme that promotes movement in the upper gastrointestinal tract, and several phytochemicals that may play a role in improving digestion.
11. Blackberries and raspberries
Blackberries and raspberries are rich in fiber and water, which can both ease constipation.
Try eating a handful or two of raw, washed blackberries or raspberries a day.
12. Whole wheat breads, cereals, and pastas
Whole wheat products are an excellent source of insoluble fiber, which adds weight to stools and speeds up the flow of materials through the intestines.
To get the most nutrients from whole wheat products, eat them raw or lightly cooked.
Whole wheat breads and cereals that also contain nuts and seeds pack even more fiber into each serving.
13. Olive and flaxseed oils
Olive and flaxseed oils have a mild laxative effect, which can ease the flow of materials through the intestines and relieve constipation.
These oils also contain compounds that improve digestion and have antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.
A 2015 study found that olive and flaxseed oils help to relieve constipation in people undergoing hemodialysis.
Sauerkraut contains probiotic bacteria that may help to improve digestion and reduce constipation.
These bacteria may also boost immune function and the digestion of lactose.
A 2016 study found that 2 tablespoons of homemade sauerkraut contain around the same amount of bacteria as probiotic supplements.
A wide variety of medical conditions and lifestyle factors can cause constipation.
A poor diet, such as one that includes too many rich and fatty foods and too little fiber, puts a person at risk of constipation.
Other common issues that can increase the risk of constipation include:
- being dehydrated
- not going to the bathroom enough or trying to hold stools in
- dietary changes
- not getting enough exercise
Certain medications and supplements can also cause constipation, including:
- calcium channel blockers
- calcium supplements
- iron supplements
Constipation may last for a few days or weeks, or it may be chronic and last for months.
Short-term constipation usually results from lifestyle factors or medication use. Chronic constipation is generally related to gastrointestinal, metabolic, or neurological conditions.
Medical conditions that can cause constipation include:
- irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS
- pregnancy and giving birth
- celiac disease
- hypercalcemia and hypocalcemia
- intestinal tumors or growths
- rectal prolapse
- anal fissures
- anxiety and depression
- Chagas disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- multiple sclerosis
- spinal cord injuries or disease
If diet or lifestyle changes are not enough to ease a person’s symptoms, a doctor or pharmacist may recommend laxative medications.
There are several types of laxative available, including:
- water-retention laxatives, such as magnesium hydroxide (Milk of Magnesia) and polyethylene glycol (Miralax)
- bulk-forming laxatives, such as methyl cellulose (Citrucel) and calcium polycarbophil (FiberCon)
- lubricants, such as mineral oil
- stool softeners, such as docusate sodium (Docusate and Colace)
- stimulants, such as bisacodyl (Correctol and Dulcolax)
Some natural laxatives include:
- castor oil
- senna tea
- aloe vera
- magnesium citrate supplements
If over-the-counter or home remedies do not relieve constipation, or if constipation becomes chronic, see a doctor or dietitian to discuss other treatment options and dietary changes.