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Most health authorities define constipation as having fewer than three bowel movements in a week. In my experience as a health care professional, I believe this to be a gross underestimate and a telling indication of just how unhealthy the average American diet has become. You should have a minimum of two bowel movements every day. A healthy bowel movement should be soft, smooth, and easy to pass. If you have fewer than two per day, or if you find yourself straining, then you are likely constipated.
Foods That Cause Constipation
While many things can cause constipation, a poor diet is by far the most common. The typical American diet is not only deficient in fiber, but it’s also loaded with constipation-causing foods. A diet that is low in fiber and high in meat, dairy, refined sugar, and processed foods can affect regularity. With that in mind, update your meal plan and cut out some of these constipation-causing foods.
Sorry, Wisconsin, but too much dairy can cause constipation. On their own, milk, frozen yogurt, ice cream, sour cream, cheese, and other dairy foods do not provide fiber. Dairy also contains lactose, a type of sugar that many people have difficulty digesting, leading to abdominal bloating and gas.[2, 3]
Yogurt is a special case. Some yogurts are fortified with added fiber, but I’d avoid most commercial yogurts as they tend to be startlingly high in refined sugar. As a rule of thumb, if you see it on a TV commercial and it has a celebrity spokesperson, assume that there are better options. Unsweetened yogurts made with traditional methods are a good source of probiotics and a healthier choice. Non-dairy yogurt is an even better choice!
2. Prepackaged and Heavily Processed Foods
Whether you call them TV dinners, frozen dinners, ready meals, or microwave meals — prepackaged foods are terrible for your colon. They are typically low in fiber and high in fat and salt. Excess salt traps water in your cells, which means your colon doesn’t have access to the fluids it needs to pass waste smoothly.
About 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine when it encounters gluten. Another 18 million have a gluten sensitivity. If you have one of these conditions, any food made with wheat, rye, or barley can cause bloating, abdominal pain, and constipation.
A night of drinking may result in diarrhea for some, but in the long-term, alcohol dehydrates the body, leaving your bowel movements dry, hard, and difficult to pass. Alcohol consumption can also trigger other constipation-causing conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Alcohol abuse can lead to pancreatitis, a condition in which the pancreas becomes swollen and tender. Pancreatitis can cause constipation, as well as abdominal pain, and bloating. If this wasn’t enough, alcohol also wreaks havoc with your intestinal microbiota, further compromising your gastrointestinal system.
5. Fried Foods
Fried foods are very high in saturated fat and rather scant on dietary fiber. A 2015 review found that a diet heavy in saturated fats is associated with significantly higher rates of constipation. Greasy foods are also more difficult to digest and move sluggishly through your digestive tract.
Meat is devastating to colon health. Meat-eaters are up to 50 percent more likely to develop colon cancer than vegetarians, and the risk is even greater when you eat nitrate-laden processed meats like sausage and lunchmeat. Fatty red meat significantly slows down your digestive process and causes constipation.
Caffeine is a stimulant, which means it can causes diarrhea. However, it’s also a desiccant, which means it dehydrates your body. Caffeine causes your kidneys to flush water from you circulation. When you run a water deficit in your body to maintain normal blood volume, your colon absorbs the water it needs from digesting food. This leaves you with harder stool that is difficult to pass.
8. Refined Sugar
There are a lot of good reasons to avoid refined sugar. Sugar is a major contributor to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar every day, which equals about 350 (empty) calories. Sugary beverages like soft drinks and energy drinks are by far the biggest source of sugar in the American diet, accounting for more than a third of the added sugar consumed nationally.
Since sugar is closely tied to devastating conditions like heart disease and diabetes, it should come as no surprise that sugar affects colon health as well. A diet high in sugar contributes to inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s and IBS. Sugar also increases your risk of developing colon and rectal cancer.
Sorry, chocolate lovers. While there are many health benefits associated with dark chocolate, avoid it if you seek constipation relief. In particular, milk chocolate is high in sugar and fat, and the associated complications that come with those. The dark variety has less sugar, but should still be avoided in times of constipation. Chocolate also frequently contains caffeine, worsening the issue.
10. Fast Food
Eating fast food is linked with gastrointestinal disorders. Like fried foods, fast food is big on saturated fats and short on fiber. Skip the hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and french fries. If you want good food fast, carry some raw fruit or nuts with you. Fruit and nuts are high in fiber, and you don’t even have to wait in line at the drive-through.
11. Unripe Bananas
This may be a surprising entry because bananas are one of the best laxative foods. Ripe bananas produce pectin, a type of dietary fiber, which helps keep you regular. Unripe, green bananas, however, have not yet started producing this nutrient. Unripe bananas contain high starch levels as well as tannins, both of which can cause constipation, particularly in children.
12. Calcium and Iron Supplements
Certain vitamins and minerals, even essential nutrients like iron and calcium, can cause constipation when used unwisely. Your body definitely needs calcium and iron, but too much from the wrong sources can cause constipation, upset stomach, and other side effects. Avoid calcium-carbonate antacids. Take plant-based iron supplements and do your research to find the safest option as not all iron supplements are equal.[17, 18]
While not technically food, we should talk about medications. Antidepressants, for example, are notorious for their noxious side effects, so it should come as no surprise that certain types can leave you feeling backed up. Grappling with constipation is the last thing you need if you’re already struggling.
How to Prevent Occasional Constipation
Your first inclination when dealing with occasional constipation may be to reach for some over-the-counter stimulant laxatives, but I strongly caution against this. Laxative overuse can lead to dependency, making your intestines reliant on medications for a bowel movement. Fortunately, other than avoiding the foods that cause constipation, there are a few other things you can do to prevent it from ever becoming an issue in the first place.
Eat More High Fiber Foods
Increasing your intake of high fiber foods greatly reduces your chances of developing constipation and other colon-related issues. There are two kinds of fiber — soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber dissolves easily in water and takes on a soft, gel-like consistency in your gut. Insoluble fiber passes through the intestines almost unchanged. The bulk and texture of fiber encourages soft, healthy stools that are easy to pass. You can find both soluble and insoluble fiber in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Drink More (of the Right) Fluids
While milk, coffee, black tea, soft drinks, and alcohol all provoke constipation, drinking plenty of the right kind of fluids will hydrate your body and get things moving a little more easily. Excellent options include herbal tea, natural fruit juices with no added sugar, detox waters, and, most importantly of all, purified water. It’s crucial to drink plenty of clean, clear water. You should consume at least half your weight in ounces every day. In other words, if you weigh 160 pounds, then you should drink a minimum of 80 ounces every day.
Manage Stress Effectively
Stress isn’t just all in your head — it affects your body, too. Stress is a part of life; there’s no changing that. You can, however, learn to deal with stress constructively. There are many methods to do this, more than I can discuss in a single article, and different methods work better for different folks.
I recommend meditation. Meditation is a powerful, free therapy that helps relieve stress, soothe emotions, tune out distractions, and encourage clear, positive thinking.
Shake it loose. A sedentary lifestyle can contribute to constipation, so get your body moving. And, no, walking from your car to your couch doesn’t count as exercise. Try to get at least 45 minutes of semi-intensive aerobic exercise at least three times a week. The more you move, the more you inspire your bowels to move.
Around 100 trillion microorganisms live in your gut right now, but that’s nothing to fret over. These beneficial microorganisms are all part of a healthy, normal gastrointestinal system and are essential to your body’s function and overall health. Probiotics are the good guys you eat every day in foods like raw vegetables, fruit, and fermented foods. Consuming probiotic foods like kimchee, kombucha, and sauerkraut can keep your gut microbiota healthy, aid digestion, and promote normal bowel movements.[22, 23]
Do a Colon Cleanse
Every day, your body encounters millions of harmful compounds from pollution, pesticides, vehicle emissions, PCBEs, cigarette smoke, VOCs, chemicals, prescription drugs, harmful organisms, heavy metals, and countless other hazardous substances. You can take steps to reduce your exposure to toxins in your life, but you can never eliminate them entirely. Over time, these agents accumulate to hazardous levels and cause more serious health concerns.
If you’ve altered your diet and still experience occasional constipation, try an oxygen-based intestinal cleanser like Oxy-Powder®. It will gently cleanse and detoxify your entire digestive tract to relieve bloating, gas, and occasional constipation.
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- “Lactose Intolerance.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 2014. Web. 30 June 2017.
- Lodish, H., Berk, A., Zipursky, S.L., et al. “Molecular Cell Biology. 4th edition. New York: W. H. Freeman; 2000. Section 15.8, Osmosis, Water Channels, and the Regulation of Cell Volume.
- Olson, Beth. “Five Things Everyone Should Know about Gluten.” College of Agricultural & Life Science. University of Wisconsin, Summer 2014. Web. 30 June 2017.
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- Remick, Ronald A. “Anticholinergic Side Effects of Tricyclic Antidepressants and Their Management.” Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 12.2-3 (1988): 225-31. Web. 30 June 2017.
- “What You Need to Know: Constipation.” University of New Hampshire Health Services. University of New Hampshire, Nov. 2010. Web. 26 June 2017.
- Sandler, R.S., M.C. Jordan, and B.J. Shelton. “Demographic and Dietary Determinants of Constipation in the US Population.” American Journal of Public Health 80.2 (1990): 185-189. Print.
- “Health Benefits of Taking Probiotics.” Harvard Health. Harvard Medical School, 1 Dec. 2015. Web. 30 June 2017.
- Corliss, Julie. “Probiotics May Ease Constipation.” Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Medical School, 21 Aug. 2014. Web. 30 June 2017.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.