There are several treatment options for constipation. Some laxatives and medicinal stool softeners can have side effects and lead to dependence. Because of this, some people prefer to opt for natural stool softeners.
Constipation is widespread across the United States. The National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) estimate that around 16% of adults have recurrent constipation symptoms, and this number increases as people age.
Treatments for constipation include a change in diet to include more high fiber foods, increased fluid intake, more exercise, as well as laxatives and medicinal stool softeners. However, using these types of treatments can have some drawbacks.
Laxatives can help relieve constipation in the short term but can lead to dependence.
Natural stool softeners have fewer drawbacks. Some may also boost health in other ways. This article looks at six natural stool softeners, as well as how to use them, and how long they take to work.
Learn more about which foods are good for constipation here.
There are a number of different ways to soften stool naturally, including dietary changes, physical activity, and supplements. These include:
Most plant foods contain fiber. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Insoluble fiber is the most beneficial for softening stools. It does not dissolve in water and helps food pass more quickly from the stomach to the intestines.
Wholewheat flour, nuts, beans, and vegetables, such as cauliflower, green beans, and potatoes all contain insoluble fiber.
A person should increase fiber intake gradually and drink plenty of water. Water helps smooth its passage through the digestive tract.
One study found that psyllium husk and coarse wheat bran increased stool water content, which had a stool-softening effect. Finely-ground wheat bran had the opposite effect and decreased stool water content.
Staying active has a host of health benefits, including encouraging regular bowel movements. As a person moves their body, it helps stimulate their digestive system.
Research has found that exercise is an effective treatment for people with constipation.
Exercise increases the body’s demands for water, so it is important to drink plenty before, during, and after exercise to keep stools soft.
For people who find exercise difficult, there are many gentle exercise options.
These include yoga sequences specifically aimed at improving digestion. Pregnant women can also benefit from yoga tailored to their specific needs.
Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria naturally found in fermented foods, including kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi, miso, kombucha, and tempeh.
They are also available as supplements and yogurt-type drinks.
Probiotics help preserve the gut microbiome — the collection of trillions of microbes in the gut that help keep the body healthy and balanced.
Consuming probiotics increases the good bacteria in the gut and improves digestion.
Research has found that consuming probiotics helps to soften stools and increase the frequency of bowel movements.
Probiotics are safe for most people, including children, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and the elderly.
Anyone with an illness or condition that affects their immune system should check with a doctor or nutritionist before changing their diet.
The fats in olive oil help ease constipation in two ways:
- by lining the inside of the bowel, making stools easier to pass
- by helping the stool hold in more water, making it softer
One tablespoon of olive oil, taken on an empty stomach, can help relieve constipation in most adults. Healthcare professionals do not recommend olive oil for children.
A study of 50 people with constipation found that olive oil, flaxseed oil, and mineral oil were all equally effective at relieving constipation symptoms in people undergoing dialysis.
Learn more about the benefits of olive oil here.
Aloe vera juice comes from the leaves of aloe vera plants. Aloe leaves are rich in compounds that help ease inflammation of the digestive tract.
To help soften stool, a person can consume aloe vera juice by adding it to smoothies or juices or drinking it on its own.
Proponents recommend purified aloe vera juice above non-purified versions, which can cause adverse side effects.
Doctors advise against drinking aloe vera juice during pregnancy or when breastfeeding. Doctors also do not recommend it for children under 12 months and should only be used for short periods.
Some people might have an allergy to aloe vera. Before consuming the juice, put a small amount of the aloe vera on the inside of your forearm. If no reaction occurs in 24 hours, it should be safe to try the juice.
Learn more about allergy testing here.
Epsom salt looks like table salt but contains the minerals magnesium and sulfate. People often add it to bath water to help soothe aching muscles, but a person can also take it orally as a natural treatment for constipation.
It works by increasing the amount of water in the intestines, softening stool.
A study involving 106 people with functional constipation found that consuming magnesium sulfate-rich mineral water every day improved the frequency and consistency of their stools.
Doctors do not recommend Epsom salt for children under 6 and do not yet know whether it is safe for pregnant and breastfeeding people, so it is best not to try.
When looking for the right treatment for constipation, it is important to know the difference between a laxative and a stool softener.
A laxative is any product that stimulates a bowel movement (the passing of a stool). A stool softener is a type of laxative that helps draw water into the intestines, thus softening stools so that they can pass through the bowel easily.
The first thing a person can do to help ease constipation is to improve their diet, increase their fluid intake, and be more active.
If there is still no improvement, they could try a natural stool softener, such as those discussed above.
If there is still no improvement, then a person may wish to consult a doctor.
The doctor may prescribe a stool softener or, in more severe cases, another type of laxative. There are many types of laxatives, as there are many causes of constipation.
The effects of stool softeners vary from a few hours to several days.
If there is no improvement after one week at the recommended dose, it is best to seek a doctor’s advice.
There are many natural options to choose from when looking for a way to ease constipation. Small changes to a person’s daily habits can have significant benefits.
Choosing a natural stool softener is likely to have fewer harmful effects than taking medicinal laxatives, which can disturb the body’s natural balance even further.