How to Get Digestion Going When You're Backed Up

Constipation is a common issue for adults and kids at any age. Here are some at-home remedies that may help.

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Photo by: agrobacter/Getty Images

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You’ve probably seen the buzz around detox teas and cleansers for clearing out the digestive tract. They claim to flush toxins out of the body by having a laxative effect, and can take the form of a juice cleanse or water flush. Not supported by much research, these cleanses are incredibly risky and can result in weakness, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, cramping, fainting and diarrhea, especially when done in the absence of food. Colonic hydrotherapy is one popular (and expensive) practice where water is pumped into the colon, resulting in several bowel movements. Similarly, you may experience unpleasant side effects while the root cause of the constipation is still not being addressed.

Constipation can be common among all ages and populations. It’s characterized by less than 3 bowel movements per week, dry or hard stools and/or straining when going to the bathroom. Some people also experience bloating and digestive discomfort. Common factors that can put someone at a higher risk for constipation include older age, pregnancy, medications, nutrition and inactivity.

Our digestive tracts are capable of removing waste without any outside help and the good news is that for most people, constipation can be treated at home with nutrition and lifestyle changes. Here are some at-home remedies that may help. If you’re suffering with chronic constipation, check in with your healthcare provider for more personalized treatment.

Up Your Fiber.

This is one of the most practical approaches for constipation. Fiber helps to bulk up the stool and improve transit time. The general recommendation for dietary fiber is 25 grams for women and 31 grams for men. If you’re wondering which foods have fiber, think of anything that grows in the ground. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and grains all make the cut, while eggs, dairy and meats do not (this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them though!) In order to meet the daily recommendations, aim to incorporate fiber-rich foods during every meal and snack. For example, you can also add chia seeds, flax and psyllium husk to smoothies for a powerful boost of fiber.

Hydrate Consistently.

If you’ve ever upped your fiber and felt worse, it’s possible you didn’t properly hydrate. Eating a high-fiber diet without consistent hydration can actually worsen constipation, so make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day. Staying hydrated consistently can also help keep stools soft, so that they’re easier to pass.

Don't Ignore the Urge.

When it’s time to go to the bathroom, go! Ignoring your body signals or putting off a bowel movement can result in the stool drying out and being more difficult to pass.

Get Your Body Moving.

Physical activity can help with bowel regularity: Activities like walking help to stimulate gut motility. Whether you’re able to carve time out for a daily workout or prefer to take short walks throughout the day, all movement counts!

Consider Supplements.

Supplements provide additional support, and there is some research to show that certain supplements can minimize constipation. Although the research is still emerging, studies show that the strains Bifidobacterium infantis, VSL #3 and B animalis may be helpful. Magnesium citrate is another supplement that has been used as a laxative for years and may provide constipation relief. Make sure to consult with a registered dietitian or health care provider to assess if these are a good fit for you and also evaluate effective dosing for your needs.

As a registered dietitian/nutritionist and Certified Diabetes Educator, Wendy Lopez, MS, RDN, CDCES is passionate about accessible and culturally relevant nutrition education. She is the co-host of the Food Heaven Podcast, and the co-founder of Food Heaven, an online platform that provides resources on cooking, intuitive eating, wellness and inclusion. When not working on creative projects, Wendy also provides nutritional counseling and medication management to patients with diabetes.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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