You need to go but it’s such an effort that you’d rather not … and yet, you must! Sounds familiar? If so, you are not alone. Surveys show that difficulty in passing stools affects up to 30% of the population. Constipation is characterized both by an insufficient number of bowel movements as well as hard, dry stools due to low water content in the digestive system. For many, this is an occasional problem that may resolve by itself or need short-term treatment. There are others, however, who grapple with hardened stools and constipation regularly, including:
- The very elderly
- People with health conditions which make straining to pass a stool inadvisable – hemorrhoid sufferers, people with heart ailments, and those recovering from surgery
- Pregnant women
- People on certain medications such as analgesics, anti-depressants, anti-allergy drugs, and chemo drugs1 2
So what are your options, especially if you want to give chemical-based stool softeners a wide berth? Some dietary and lifestyle changes and you’re on your way out of your toilet troubles. Additionally, taking natural stool softeners can help deal both with occasional difficulties as well as chronic constipation.3 Here are your options:
1. Water And Other Fluids
Get the recommended 6–8 glasses of water from vegetables, fruits and fresh fruit juices, coconut water, soups, milk, tea, and of course, just plain water. Sometimes, just drinking the required amount of fluid, along with a wholesome diet and exercise, may be enough to treat constipation.
Yes, the simplest and most obvious one first! You’ve probably grown up hearing about the “8 glasses a day” rule. And this is especially relevant if constipation keeps rearing its head. Water plays multiple roles to keep us healthy, active, and alert. During digestion, water helps dissolve waste matter and allows it to pass smoothly through the intestines. When we don’t drink enough fluids, our body “steals” water from waste matter, resulting in hard, dry stools. Constipation could, therefore, be a sign that you aren’t drinking enough water.4 5
2. Fiber-Rich Fruits And Leafy Greens
Beans, peas, nuts, and seeds are also good sources of soluble fiber.
Fiber (or roughage) in food plays a vital role in digestion. Working together with water, fiber helps to bulk up, soften, and sweep waste matter efficiently out of your system. Whole or unrefined foods typically contain soluble and insoluble fiber, both of which your digestive system needs to function properly. In the digestive tract, soluble fiber absorbs water from food and becomes a soft gel. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to stool and speeds it along the intestines.6
Include fiber-rich fruits regularly in your diet and feel the difference! The recommended daily intake of fruits for older children and adults is 3–4 servings while that for young children is 2 servings.7 The soft portions of fruits contain soluble fiber. Ripe papayas, for instance, have a mild laxative effect and, when eaten frequently, can help regularize and soften bowel movements.8 Ayurvedic experts recommend fiber-rich mango to ease constipation. Bananas can also work their magic.9 Insoluble fiber is found in fruit peels – think apples, pears, grapes, and blueberries.10
Similarly, dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, kale are rich in fiber and magnesium, which are key to a smoothly functioning digestive system.11 The recommended daily servings of all vegetables for adults is 4–5 servings and 3 for children. Ensure that you get a variety of vegetables in your daily meal plans.12
3. Whole Grains
Whole grains are rich in fiber and nutrients, unlike their refined counterparts. Include brown rice, whole wheat, bulgur (cracked wheat), pearl barley, and even popcorn in your list of must-haves. Oatmeal and oat bran are loaded with soluble fiber while wheat bran contains insoluble fiber. Adults need 9–11 servings per day of whole grains while children need about 6 servings.13 14
A word of caution: Typically, most people eat far less fiber than the recommended daily amount of 25 gm for women and 38 gm for men. So if your system is unused to a high fiber diet, give it time to get accustomed to the new regime, with gradual increases in fiber content, or you could end up with stomach cramps, gas, and bloating. Increase your fluid intake too so that your body can handle the higher fiber content.15
Now on to other specific foods that can work as stool softeners!
You could sprinkle flaxseed powder over your breakfast cereal, a yogurt smoothie, or a salad. Alternatively, mix a tablespoon of flaxseed oil with yogurt and honey and have it half an hour before bedtime.
Flaxseeds make for an excellent natural stool softener thanks to their soluble and insoluble fiber content and a gummy substance in them called mucilage. When combined with water, both the fiber and mucilage expand. In the digestive system, flaxseeds add bulk and smoothness to waste matter, propelling it along the intestines with ease.
If you’re buying whole flaxseeds, grind them well and consume the ground seeds within 24 hours or they become ineffective. Flaxseeds are also available ground and specially packaged to preserve their active compounds or in capsules. Flaxseed oil should be stored in your refrigerator. Don’t forget to drink plenty of fluids during the day while increasing your intake of flaxseeds.16 17 18
5. Psyllium Husk
If you’ve never taken psyllium, start with a small dose, say half teaspoon in 8 ounces of water. Increase the quantity gradually and remember to drink 6–8 glasses of water during the day – psyllium supplements may otherwise swell and can cause choking.
Derived from a shrub-like herb called Plantago ovata, psyllium husk has both soluble and insoluble fiber, making it a popular and effective stool softening supplement-cum-mild laxative. When mixed with water, the tiny seeds swell into a gelatinous mass. Passing through the digestive tract, they add bulk to the stool, soften, and hydrate it and help in easy elimination. The effects of psyllium – and similar bulking laxatives like pectin and guar – closely resemble the body’s own mechanism of bowel movement.
Psyllium is useful for several problems. It can help mild diarrhea and reduce pain from hemorrhoids. This natural stool softener is widely available in different forms – as dry seeds to be combined with water, capsules, tablets, and as a compound in laxative preparations. You may find psyllium added to some cereals too. Ideally, have psyllium on an empty stomach in the mornings or at bedtime. If you are on any medication, consult your doctor for possible adverse interactions before using psyllium. Children shouldn’t be given psyllium without your doctor’s go-ahead.19 20
Children aged 1 –6 years can be given up to 1/4 cup of prunes or 3/4 cup of prune juice a day for constipation. Children above 7 years can be given a maximum of 1.5 cups of prune juice a day. For adults, eating 5–10 prunes a day will help relieve the difficulty of passing hard stools.21 22
Prunes or dried plums can be your bowel’s best friend and is relatively mild for even children. A 100 gm portion has about 6.1 gm of dietary fiber, helping bulk up waste and keep those bowel movements regular. Besides the fiber’s ability to keep you “regular,” the juice of prunes is an effective laxative. This might be due to its high levels of sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that is slowly digested, producing a laxative effect. The juice contains 6.1 gm of sorbitol per 100 gm and the prune contains 14.7 gm in a similar 100 gm portion.23
Mix a half teaspoon of triphala powder in a cup of warm water. Drink it about 30 minutes before bedtime. Do not eat anything once you’ve taken this. Triphala is also available in tablet form and an ayurvedic practitioner can guide you on dosage.
In Ayurvedic thought, excessive vata dosha, along with poor agni (“digestive fire” or metabolism) are the causes of constipation. Among the best known ayurvedic herbs for chronic constipation is triphala made from the tropical fruits amalaki, vibitaki , and haritaki. It works by stimulating the digestive fire and helps eliminate waste matter. Triphala can be taken regularly to keep your digestive system functioning smoothly and prevent the formation of hard stools.24 25
Soak 2–3 dried figs overnight in a cup of water. Eat them next morning on an empty stomach and again in the evening. You can drink the water as well. Continue this for 3 weeks to a month. You can also eat your soaked figs with a tablespoon of honey.26 27
A few figs taken daily can be just what you need if you’re finding it difficult to go. Figs are loaded with potassium and vitamins. Additionally, their fiber content gives them effective laxative properties. There are 5 gm of fiber to every three figs you eat, helping to add bulk to stool. According to ayurveda, they build ojas or vitality. Bonus: they taste good too!
9. Lemon Juice
Add warm lemon water to your morning routine only if it agrees with you. If you feel that it is causing acidity, stop drinking lemon water or dilute it more.
In the Ayurvedic tradition, lemon is believed to help regulate excess vata dosha, a prime cause of constipation. It also fires up your metabolism and cleanses toxins accumulated in the digestive system. Squeeze half a lemon into a large glass of warm water. Drink this early morning on an empty stomach to encourage bowel movement. Use a straw to avoid damage to your tooth enamel.28 29 Lemon juice is acidic because of its high ascorbic acid and citric acid content. However, once metabolized, it becomes alkaline and can help remove acidic waste from the body.30
10. Fenugreek Seeds
Fenugreek seeds have demulcent properties, that is, they coat the intestines and help to move out dry stools. Like psyllium, they swell up and add bulk to stool, so it’s essential that you take plenty of water during the day to avoid gastrointestinal obstructions. About 50% of the seed is dietary fiber.31
Soak 1–2 teaspoons of soaked fenugreek seeds in water and drink this 2–3 times during the day. Sprouted seeds can also be used in salads or blitzed and had diluted with fresh juice.
These natural methods and fiber supplements to soften stools are safe and non-habit forming. Explore them as your first line of treatment before consulting a doctor to treat the problem of constipation. Of course, if you have an underlying health condition like diabetes or heart ailments or you are pregnant, keep your doctor in the know about these. In tandem, maintain an active lifestyle with sufficient exercise and cut down on foods high in sugar and fat to improve bowel function. And when you need to go, don’t hold back … just go.34
|↑1||Chronic constipation in the elderly: a primer for the gastroenterologist. NIH.|
|↑2||Constipation in older adults. NIH.|
|↑3||By the way, doctor: Is it okay to take a stool softener long-term?. Harvard Health Publishing.|
|↑4||Why Water Is Important and How to Determine How Much You Need. A Healthier Michigan, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.|
|↑5, ↑24||Gottlieb, Bill. New Choices In Natural Healing: Over 1,800 of the Best Self-Help Remedies from the World of Alternative Medicine. Rodale, 1999.|
|↑6, ↑10||Fiber. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑7||Build A Healthy Base. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP).|
|↑8||Aravind. G., Debjit Bhowmik, Duraivel. S, Harish. G. “Traditional and Medicinal Uses of Carica papaya.” Journal of Medicinal Plants Studies, Vol. 1(2013): 1.|
|↑9||Johari, Harish. Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co., 2000.|
|↑11, ↑17||Editors at Reader’s Digest. Doctors’ Favorite Natural Remedies: The Safest and Most Effective Natural Ways to Treat More Than 85 Everyday Ailments. Simon and Schuster, 07-Jun-2016.|
|↑12, ↑14||Dietary Fiber. FDA.|
|↑13||Build A Healthy Base. ODPHP.|
|↑15||Fiber. Oregon State University.|
|↑16||Flaxseed. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑18||Teller, Christopher. Powerful Constipation Natural Remedies. Lulu Press, 2014.|
|↑19||Psyllium. University of Maryland Medical Center.|
|↑20||Murray, Michael T. and Pizzorno, Joseph. The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine Third Edition. Simon and Schuster, 2012.|
|↑21||Bae, Sun Hwan. “Diets for constipation.” Pediatric gastroenterology, hepatology & nutrition 17, no. 4 (2014): 203-208.|
|↑22||Constipation in Children. EatRightOntario.|
|↑23||Stacewicz-Sapuntzakis, Maria, Phyllis E. Bowen, Erum A. Hussain, Bernadette I. Damayanti-Wood, and Norman R. Farnsworth. “Chemical composition and potential health effects of prunes: a functional food?.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition 41, no. 4 (2001): 251-286.|
|↑25||Weil, Andrew. Natural Health, Natural Medicine: The Complete Guide to Wellness and Self-Care for Optimum Health. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004|
|↑26||Johari, Harish. Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co, 2000.|
|↑27||Verotta, Luisella; Macchi, Maria Pia & Venkatasubramanian, Padma Venkatasubramanian. Connecting Indian Wisdom and Western Science: Plant Usage for Nutrition and Health. CRC Press, 2015.|
|↑28||Johari, Harish. Ayurvedic Healing Cuisine. Inner Traditions / Bear & Co. 2000.|
|↑29||Verotta, Luisella, Maria Pia Macchi & Padma Venkatasubramanian. Connecting Indian Wisdom and Western Science: Plant Usage for Nutrition and Health. CRC Press, 2015.|
|↑30||Zak, Victoria. The Magic Teaspoon. Penguin, 2006.|
|↑31||Snehlata, Helambe S., and Dande R. Payal. “Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.): an overview.” Int J Curr Pharm Rev Res 2, no. 4 (2012): 169-87.|
|↑32||Teller, Christopher. Powerful Constipation Natural Remedies. Lulu Press, 2014|
|↑33||Rawat, Aks. Sharad Srivastava, Sanjeev Kumar Ojha. “Herbal Remedies for Management of Constipation and its Ayurvedic Perspectives.” JIMSA January-March 2012 Vol. 25 No. 1|
|↑34||Constipation. University of Maryland Medical Center.|