What is the most common digestive complaint in the United States? Constipation. We probably don’t need to explain the symptoms but forgive us for stating the obvious. Stools become hard, dry, and sometimes painful to pass. Although frequency usually declines, irregularity is not the defining characteristic. Not everyone has a daily bowel movement. Constipation is more common in seniors and affects women three times more often more than it does men. If constipation persists more than three months, it’s considered chronic. In addition to making you uncomfortable, constipation has other negative consequences. Passage of hard stools may tear the anus, resulting in a vicious cycle where reluctance to re-experience the pain worsens constipation.
1. Psyllium Seed Husk Elixir
How it works: Apple juice has a laxative effect. Both black and blond psyllium husks act as bulk-forming laxatives, which means their fiber holds water in the intestine, making the stool softer and easier to pass. Studies show that psyllium can be more effective than over-the-counter stool softeners, such as Colace (docusate sodium).
- ½ cup (120 ml) 100 percent apple juice
- 1½ cups (355 ml) water, divided
- 1 to 2 teaspoons (6 to 12 g) psyllium husks
- DIRECTIONS: Mix the apple juice and ½ cup (60 ml) of the water in a glass. Stir in the psyllium and drink the remaining water. Take two to three times a day.
- YIELD: 01 SERVING
- NOTE: Be sure to chase a glass of a psyllium beverage with an additional tall glass of water. Fiber doesn’t help unless you consume water with it. In fact, insufficient water used with such products as Metamucil (whose active ingredient is psyllium husks) can make constipation worse.
2. A “Regular” Smoothie
How it works: The fiber in psyllium and fruit helps soften the stool. Flaxseed meal adds omega-3 fatty acids, which provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action. Flaxseeds also ought to act as a bulk-forming laxative, but research confirmation is lacking.
- ½ banana
- 1½ teaspoons (11 g) flaxseed meal
- 1 teaspoon (6 g) psyllium husks
- ¾ cup (109 g) strawberries or (190 g) raspberries
- ½ cup (120 ml) almond milk
- DIRECTIONS: Place all the ingredients in a blender and blend well. Grind in an ice cube for a frothy finish.
- YIELD: 01 SERVING
How it works: Magnesium salts (magnesium citrate, sulfate, and hydroxide) taken as supplements draw water into the intestine and stimulate motility, thereby creating a laxative effect. Magnesium is well absorbed from such vegetables as broccoli; seeds (including pumpkin seeds) and nuts—especially almonds; and from legumes, whole grains, squash, and leafy greens. All these foods also provide fiber.
- ¼ cup (16 g) hulled pumpkin seeds or (28 g) slivered almonds
- 1 pound (455 g) fresh broccoli
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) olive oil
- ½ to 1 teaspoon (0.5 to 1.1 g) red pepper flakes
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- ¹∕8 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup (120 ml) water
Lightly oil a skillet using canola or olive oil cooking spray. Place over high heat, add the pumpkin seeds, and brown lightly, about a minute or two. Immediately transfer the seeds to a bowl.
Remove the larger, tougher stems of the broccoli, break the florets into bite-size pieces, and slice the remaining stems.
Add the olive oil to the pan and lower the heat to medium. Add the broccoli, red pepper flakes to taste, salt, and black pepper. Pour the water on top. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes until barely tender and still bright green. Remove immediately from the heat. Drain any remaining water. Sprinkle the pumpkin seeds on top and serve.
- YIELD: 4 TO 6 SERVING
4. Bean Soup Delight
How it works: Navy beans provide twice as much fiber as most vegetables—a whopping 9.5 grams in just ½ cup (91 g). They play a strong part in reversing constipation.
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) canola oil
- 1 slice bacon (turkey or vegetarian), chopped into small bits
- 1 cup (160 g) chopped onion
- ½ cup (50 g) chopped celery
- 2 cans (15 ounces, or 428 g) navy beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 cup (235 ml) low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
- ¼ teaspoon sea salt
- ¼ cup (85 g) honey
- DIRECTIONS: Place the oil and bacon bits in a large pot over medium heat and sauté for about 2 minutes. Drop in the onion and celery and sauté until the onion becomes transparent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the beans and stir well. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Stir in the sea salt and honey. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the beans are tender. Serve.
- YIELD: 04 SERVING
5. Johnny Apple Treat
How it works: Fresh apples are high in fiber, which adds bulk to the stool. They contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, also called roughage.
- 1 apple
- ¼ cup (35 g) raisins
- ¼ cup (30 g) chopped walnuts
- 1 tablespoon (15 g) fresh lemon juice
- Ground cinnamon
- DIRECTIONS: Coarsely grate the apple into a small bowl. Mix in the walnuts and raisins. Add the lemon juice and toss. Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste and enjoy.
- YIELD: 02 SERVING
6. Cantaloupe with Honey-Yogurt Dressing
How it works: Yogurt contains probiotics, living bacteria with health benefits, which promote intestinal health. Several studies have shown that fermented dairy products (fermented milk, in most cases) improve childhood constipation. Probiotic mixtures have been shown to relieve constipation in pregnant women, too. Cantaloupe contains fiber and magnesium.
- 1 cup (230 g) plain yogurt
- 1 tablespoon (20 g) honey
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cantaloupe, seeded and cut into bite-size chunks
- DIRECTIONS: In a small bowl, blend together the yogurt, honey, and cinnamon. Portion the cantaloupe among 6 small bowls. Drizzle the honey-yogurt dressing over each serving.
- YIELD: 06 SERVING
7. Bran Breakfast Starter
How it works: Bran is insoluble fiber. Because it’s not absorbed in the gut, it remains, holding water with it. Studies indicate that the larger the size of the bran particle, the better it works. Among fruits, unpeeled apples and pears are leaders in the fiber arena.
- 1 cup (235 ml) almond milk, plus more as needed
- 1 cup (112 g) wheat bran
- 1 medium-size apple or pear, cored and cut into chunks
- 1 to 2 teaspoons (7 to 14 g) honey
- Ground cinnamon
- DIRECTIONS: Bring the almond milk to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Stir in the bran until well coated. Add the fruit and honey. Lower the heat to medium and cook for 5 to 7 minutes until the mixture thickens. Sprinkle with cinnamon to taste and serve, adding extra almond milk as needed to create your desired consistency.
- YIELD: 02 SERVING
8. Prune Tune-Up
How it works: Whole prunes, as well as other dried fruits, such as apricots and raisins, are rich in both magnesium and fiber.
- 8 pitted prunes
- 8 walnut halves
- ¼ cup (58 g) plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon (7 g) honey
- DIRECTIONS: Slice each prune in half and insert a walnut half. Stuff the walnut completely into the prune. In a small bowl, mix the yogurt and honey together. Dip the stuffed prunes into the mixture. Enjoy throughout the day, serving the prunes as a healthy snack or dessert.
- YIELD: 2 SERVINGS OF 4 PRUNES EACH
- Leave yourself ample time in the morning for a relaxing breakfast. The first meal of the day often triggers a bowel movement. Being rushed can interfere with that reflexive action, mainly because the stress response slows bowel motility.
- Exercise. Regular physical activity helps stimulate the intestines. Sedentary people are more often troubled by constipation. A Scandinavian study of chronically constipated middle-aged people found that daily physical activity (30 minutes of brisk walking followed by 11 minutes of home exercises) hastened “transit time” through the large intestine and reduced symptoms of constipation.
- Enjoy a movie night. Popcorn is a great low-calorie way to get more fiber in your diet, especially if low fiber is the cause of your constipation. But skip the salt and butter—they’ll undo the benefits. Season popcorn with a little olive oil, curry, garlic, or a pinch of cayenne for a movie treat.
- Enjoy kiwifruit, which is high in fiber— packing about 3 grams in a single fruit. Studies show that eating this delicious fruit promotes motility along the entire digestive tract. Scientists suspect that plant components other than fiber may contribute to this effect.
When to Call the Doctor
- You’ve noticed a significant, unexplained change in bowel habits.
- Constipation is associated with significant discomfort, painful hemorrhoids, or anal fissures.
- You feel that bowel movements don’t completely evacuate your rectum.
- You have chronic problems with constipation.
- You’re pregnant. Call before you resort to over-the-counter laxatives.
- You’re concerned about your child’s bowel movements.