Okay, we're going to talk about something that is far from glamorous today: constipation. But it has to be done because guess what: We've all probably experienced this uncomfortable condition at least once in our lives, and it's not fun, right?
The medical definition of constipation, according to The Mayo Clinic, is "infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools that persists for several weeks or longer." In general, it's categorized as having fewer than three bowel movements a week. Some people might have occasional constipation, while others experience chronic constipation, which has additional symptoms like feeling "blocked" or like you can't completely empty yourself; straining; and/or having hard or lumpy stools.
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"Constipation can have so many causes, including dehydration, lack of dietary fiber, lack of exercise, and a change in routine such as travel," explains Sarah Rueven, RD, MS, CDN, founder of Rooted Wellness. "Stress and anxiety can also play a role in GI changes like constipation. When we feel anxious, nervous, or stressed, our brain releases hormones that can then affect the nerves in our GI tract, leading to changes in bowel habits such as constipation or diarrhea." And there might be other causes like medications or supplements that are affecting your regularity. Or you could have an underlying medical condition like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or colorectal cancer.
Also, some people are more susceptible to constipation. According to The Cleveland Clinic, older people and women who are pregnant or have just given birth are two groups that might experience it more. Rueven recommends that anyone experiencing a sudden change in bowel habits speak to their doctor to see if it's a sign of another condition.
And while constipation can be so frustrating and worrying at times, there are some things you can do to relieve it or avoid it altogether. The Cleveland Clinic suggests regular exercise as a way to both treat and prevent it. Also, experts there suggest even looking at how you sit on the toilet, as raising your feet, leaning back, or squatting might help.
"If you are experiencing constipation, I would recommend looking at your diet and lifestyle first, as often, making small changes in what you are eating and drinking can help solve the problem," Rueven says. "With my clients, I always start by looking at their intake of fiber-rich foods (fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes). Fiber, and in particular insoluble fiber, is what helps speed up intestinal transit time and prevent constipation. Good sources of insoluble fiber include whole grains, nuts, seeds, certain vegetables and fruit with the skin."
Rueven also recommends that women consume at least 25 grams of fiber per day and men should have 38 grams. A healthy gut microbiome is key, too. "We can support our gut microbiome by eating adequate fiber and prebiotic-rich foods," she explains. "Prebiotics are compounds found in plants that feed the healthy bacteria living in our gut. Prebiotic-rich foods include garlic, onions, asparagus, apples, and Jerusalem artichokes."
She outlined some more foods to relieve or prevent constipation below.
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"Yogurt contains live, beneficial bacteria, which help keep our gut healthy and in turn help to keep our GI tract running smoothly," Rueven says. "I love plain Greek yogurt because it is higher in protein and lower in sugar than other forms of yogurt. Mix in some berries and ground flaxseeds for a high-fiber treat!"
Okay, no, water isn't exactly a food, but you need to up your intake and make it a priority in your diet if you want to avoid constipation. "Without adequate hydration, stools can become dry and hard to pass," Rueven says. "Aim for eight to 10 cups of water per day and eat a variety of hydrating fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, watermelon, and lettuce."
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Prunes might not be seen as the "coolest" food out there, but they really can get things moving, if you know what I mean. Rueven adds that the dried fruit contains insoluble fiber and sorbitol, which is a natural laxative that pulls water into the large intestine.
These delicious fruits are another source of insoluble fiber. Rueven says that because we eat berries with the skin on, they contain a good amount of fiber.
Eat your peas, please! They contain about 15 grams of insoluble fiber per one cup serving. Rueven says she always keeps a bag of frozen ones in her freezer so she can easily add them to stir-fries or soups. "Green peas are a great source of insoluble fiber, containing about 15 grams per one-cup serving! I always keep a bag of frozen green peas on hand because they are just so easy for adding to stir-fries or soups.
"Flaxseeds are a good source of fiber, and studies have shown that regular consumption of ground flaxseeds may improve constipation in individuals with constipation-dominant IBS," Rueven says. "Always buy ground flaxseeds (or grind them yourself!) as they will pass through the GI tract undigested in their whole form, and you won't reap their benefits!"
Sauerkraut is a gut win because it contains live probiotics that help promote good digestion. According to Rueven, a study found that just two tablespoons of sauerkraut contain the same amount of bacteria as a probiotic supplement.
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"Bananas can help to de-bloat because they contain potassium, a nutrient which helps to rid the body of excess sodium and fluid," Rueven says. "Bananas are also a good source of prebiotic fiber, which helps to feed the healthy bacteria in our gut."
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To get the most fiber out of a sweet potato, Rueven suggests eating it with the skin on since that's where the majority of the fiber is found.
What's that rhyme about beans making you toot and making you feel better? Well, it's true because all kinds of beans are an excellent source of concentrated fiber. Rueven says one cup of beans has more than 10 grams of fiber.
"Oats contain soluble fiber," Rueven says. "While we typically think of insoluble fiber as the type of fiber that helps prevent and relieve constipation, soluble fiber also plays a role. Soluble fiber pulls water into the GI tract, which helps to soften stools and make them easier to pass."