Constipation is the medical term for a reduction in bowel movements or difficulty passing stool. Eating certain foods can help to ease and prevent constipation.

A person preparing vegetables in the kitchenShare on Pinterest
Morsa Images/Getty Images

This article explains what constipation is and outlines the symptoms of the condition. It also lists foods and drinks that may help alleviate it.

We also look at some of the alternative options and discuss when a person needs to see a doctor.

The article then outlines some frequently asked questions about constipation, including its causes and treatment.

Constipation is the medical term for when a person has a reduction in bowel movements or difficulty passing stool.

Everyone’s bowel habits are different, but constipated people usually have fewer than three bowel movements per week.

Constipation is common. In the United States, around 16 in 100 adults experience symptoms of constipation. The risk increases with age, with constipation affecting approximately 33 in 100 adults aged 60 or older.

Aside from having fewer than three bowel movements per week, people with constipation may also experience the following symptoms:

  • 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 abdomen

A person may also notice small streaks of bright red blood in the stools or on toilet paper after wiping.

People’s bowels respond to foods differently. However, the following may help to relieve constipation.

1. Olive and flaxseed oils

Olive and flaxseed oils have a mild laxative effect, helping to ease the flow of materials through the intestines.

These oils also contain compounds that improve digestion and have antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.

A 2015 randomized controlled trial found that olive and flaxseed oils help relieve constipation in people undergoing hemodialysis — blood filtering.

In this study, the effects of both olive oil and flaxseed oil were comparable to those of mineral oil, which is a laxative that medical professionals sometimes recommend to treat constipation.

2. Probiotics

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that may help to improve gut health and soften stools.

A 2017 systematic review of four randomized controlled trials (RCTs) investigated the effectiveness of probiotics as a treatment for constipation among elderly adults. Overall, the analysis suggested that probiotics improved constipation by 10–40% compared with a placebo.

The authors noted that most RCTs involved the probiotic strain Bifidobacterium longum. Further RCTs are necessary to determine the most effective probiotic strains, doses, and treatment durations.

Yogurt and kefir

Many dairy products, including yogurt and kefir, contain probiotics.

A 2017 study investigated the effectiveness of kefir for preventing constipation in people with mental and physical disabilities. For 12 weeks, participants each received 2 grams (g) of freeze-dried or “lyophilized” kefir with their meals.

The study found that kefir significantly reduced constipation. However, while some individuals experienced complete constipation relief, others experienced no effect. The authors concluded that daily consumption of kefir could help to prevent constipation.

Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut is a fermented cabbage dish containing probiotic bacteria that may help to boost gut health and alleviate constipation.

A 2016 study found that two tablespoons of homemade sauerkraut contain around the same amount of bacteria as probiotic supplements.

3. Vegetables and legumes

Vegetables are high in insoluble fiber. This type of fiber adds bulk to stools, which helps to promote more regular bowel movements.

Broccoli

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 four weeks. The researchers found that the people who ate broccoli sprouts had fewer symptoms of constipation and quicker bowel movements.

4. Pulses

Most beans, lentils, and peas are very high in fiber.

A 2017 study found that 100 g of cooked pulses provides around 26% of the daily fiber intake that doctors recommend in the U.S.

A 100 g serving of pulses also contains substantial quantities of other nutrients that help to ease constipation, such as:

5. Fruits

Fruits are also rich in insoluble fiber, and many also have high water content. This makes fruit particularly effective at easing constipation. Below are some fruits that people can try for symptom relief.

High-fiber fruits

High-fiber fruits that may help to ease constipation include:

  • Kiwifruit: On average, 100 g of kiwifruit contains around 3 g of fiber. Kiwifruit also contains the enzyme actinidine, which alleviates upper gastrointestinal symptoms such as:
    • abdominal discomfort
    • pain
    • indigestion
    • reflux
  • Apples and pears: These fruits contain high levels of water, which can help to ease digestion and prevent constipation. To get the most benefit from apples and pears, a person should eat them raw and whole, with the skin intact. These fruits contain several compounds that improve digestion, including:
    • fiber
    • sorbitol
    • fructose
  • Grapes: These fruits have a high skin-to-flesh ratio and are rich in fiber. They also contain a lot of water, which helps to add moisture to hard stools.
  • Blackberries and raspberries: These fruits are rich in fiber and water, which can ease constipation. A person can try eating a handful or two of raw, washed blackberries or raspberries a day.

Prunes

Aside from containing a lot of fiber, prunes also contain sorbitol and phenolic compounds that may have gastrointestinal benefits.

A 2018 study investigated the effect of prunes on constipation severity in women aged 60 years and older. The researchers divided the 60 participants into two groups of 30.

Both groups continued to consume their usual diet. However, the treatment group received 50 g of rehydrated prunes every morning for three weeks.

Unlike the control group, the treatment group showed a significant reduction in the severity of constipation symptoms. These changes began at the end of the first week and continued to the end of the third week.

The authors concluded that prunes could be an effective complementary treatment for reducing constipation severity in older women.

6. Whole wheat bread, cereals, and pasta

Whole wheat products are an excellent source of insoluble fiber. To get the most nutrients from whole wheat products, a person should eat them raw or lightly cooked.

Wheat bran

Wheat bran is the hard outer layer of the wheat kernel. It is rich in insoluble fiber.

A 2017 study investigated the effectiveness of wheat bran as a treatment for constipation in infants and older children. Researchers assessed 51 children for seven months.

Over this period, researchers associated increases in bran intake with significant improvements in bowel habits. At the end of the study, 86% of children had improved bowel habits.

7. Liquids

Liquids add moisture to stools, making them softer and easier to pass. Below are some liquids that people can try for constipation.

Water

Dehydration is a common cause of constipation. When a person becomes dehydrated, their intestines cannot add enough water to stools. Dehydration results in hard, dry, lumpy stools that are difficult to pass.

Drinking plenty of water can help to ease or resolve the symptoms and avoid a person getting constipated.

Read more about drinking water here.

Clear soups

Clear soups may be particularly effective at easing constipation since warm liquids and foods are generally easier to digest.

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 laxatives 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)

Natural laxatives include:

A person should see a doctor if their constipation does not improve following appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes and treatment with over-the-counter medications.

Can constipation be a sign of something more serious?

Most cases of acute constipation are due to diet or lifestyle factors. However, chronic constipation can sometimes signal an underlying medical condition.

Some medical conditions that can cause constipation include:

Can medications cause constipation?

Certain medications can cause or contribute to constipation. Examples include:

Iron supplements may also cause constipation.

A doctor can help determine what may be causing a person’s constipation and provide suitable remedies and treatments to enhance bowel movement and frequency.

Below are some answers to common questions about constipation types and causes.

What is the difference between acute and chronic constipation?

Acute constipation lasts for a few days, whereas chronic constipation lasts for several weeks or months.

Acute constipation usually results from lifestyle factors or medication use. Chronic constipation is generally related to gastrointestinal, metabolic, or neurological conditions.

What lifestyle factors cause constipation?

A wide variety of lifestyle factors can cause constipation.

A diet high in fats and low in fiber puts a person at risk of constipation. Other common issues that can increase the risk of constipation include:

  • dehydration
  • sudden dietary changes
  • not getting enough exercise
  • not going to the bathroom enough, or trying to hold in stools
  • stress

Constipation refers to a person’s difficulty passing stool.

People may have fewer than three bowel movements per week, experience pain or discomfort when trying to empty bowels or have hard or dry lumps of stool.

Certain foods are beneficial to a person’s gut health — people can promote bowel movements by consuming high-fiber fruits and vegetables, probiotics, and whole wheat foods. There are also alternative treatments a doctor may recommend, such as laxatives.

A person should consult a medical professional if both dietary and medical treatments do not remedy their constipation to determine what may be causing their reduced bowel movements.

Read this article in Spanish.