Constipation is one of the most frustrating GI issues my clients face. It puts them in a state both because of the physical discomfort it causes, and also because of the lack of support they receive from medical professionals who treat constipation as a laxative deficiency. (It's not, by the way.)
There's absolutely no shame in needing medication to manage a health issue but, in many cases, constipation can be improved with diet and lifestyle changes that are less expensive than medication and have no side effects. If you're interested in natural supports for constipation and IBS-C, here are some strategies to help you get started.
When someone is experiencing constipation, one of the first questions that should be asked is, "What's your fluid intake like?"
Your hydration target is half of your bodyweight (lbs) in ounces of hydrating beverages like water and herbal tea per day. So a 160 lb person should shoot for 80 ounces (or 2.3 litres) of water and/or herbal tea throughout the day.
Your body is super smart and recycles a lot of water from your GI tract so if you take in less than this amount, your body will absorb it from your large intestine, leaving you with hard bunny poops. Not fun.
If you do a sweaty workout, live in a hot/dry climate, or feel thirsty for more water you may need more, but this is your daily baseline. Before you move on to any other strategy on this list, make sure you've got hydration covered.
2. Fibre Intake
Another frontline strategy for constipation is dialling in on your fibre intake. Most people are not eating enough fibre and, in my opinion, public health and medical professionals are not recommending enough fibre. Currently, women are recommended to get about 25 grams of fibre per day, and men are recommended to get about 38 grams of fibre per day. From an evolutionary biology standpoint, humans have historically eaten much more than this.
When it comes to increasing fibre, there are a lot of mistakes I see:
Going straight to fibre supplements rather than optimizing the diet
Increasing fibre without ensuring proper hydration
Inconsistent fibre with one super high-fibre meal per day rather than fibre with each meal
Increasing fibre too quickly
These mistakes can lead to bloating and actually make constipation worse! Instead, try this:
Focus on getting 6-9 servings of veggies and fruit per day, which will naturally increase your fibre intake
Increase your fibre intake by one serving per day over a couple weeks so your body can adjust
Strategically add food-based fibres like ground flax and chia if you need more support
Ensure your fibre intake is balanced throughout the day, rather than trying to jam it all into a smoothie
3. Slow Down & Chew
Lifestyle changes are often the last supports people incorporate and I get it: change is hard. Maybe this is why doctors are so quick to prescribe a laxative. It's faster and easier than coaching people through the changes that will actually solve their problems. But this is so important and should not be skipped.
If you're not digesting your food, you're more likely to be constipated. Every time you eat, do these things:
Stop what you're doing and focus on your food. Look at it, smell it and really taste it.
Take 10 deep breaths before your first bite. This will shift your nervous system out of "fight-or-flight" mode and into "rest-and-digest" mode.
Chew each bite until it's pureed, about 30 times
Enjoy your meal and wait until you're done to check your phone or get back to work
Herbal supports can be a gentle and effective way to reduce constipation, but they can also be powerful and habit forming so be careful here. “Natural” doesn’t always imply “safe” or “gentle.”
Herbal supports I recommend:
Drink dandelion root tea and/or tincture in the morning and before bed
Drink ginger tea or take capsules which can be used as a prokinetic to improve motility.
Take a digestive bitters tincture 15 minutes before meals.
Use marshmallow root or slippery elm bark powder as a gentle bulk-forming laxative.
Herbal supports to be careful with:
Smooth Move tea
Herbal laxative teas and formulas
I recommend limiting the herbal above supports because they can be habit forming and impact your body's ability to have an unassisted bowel movement. That’s definitely not what we want!
Some nutrients in supplement form can also be helpful for reducing constipation! Two that stand out here are Magnesium Citrate and Vitamin C.
This supplement helps by bringing water into the stool, hydrating it and making it easier to pass. For most people 200-400 mg before bed is enough to provide gentle, non-habit-forming support. You can adjust based on your bowel tolerance, increase slowly to find the right dose for your own body.
If magnesium citrate is too powerful for you, magnesium bisglycinate may be a better form. If citrate is not helping, magnesium oxide is more powerful.
Since Vitamin C is poorly absorbed in supplement form, much of it stays in the GI tract and attracts water, similar to magnesium. Taking about 1,000 mg before bed can provide gentle overnight support. This can be adjusted based on your bowel tolerance by taking 1,000 mg with a glass of water every hour until you go.
Bonus Tips to Try:
Elevate your knees above your hips on the toilet to put yourself in the proper anatomical position for pooping. A Squatty Potty or small stool is all you need for this.
Space out meals by 3-4 hours to allow your migrating motor complex time to do it's job and move the contents of your GI tract along.
Fast overnight for about 12 hours (8 PM to 8 AM for example). This is when your migrating motor complex is most active.
Try probiotics or prebiotics to support your microbiome.
Gargle water twice per day (after brushing your teeth) for about 30 seconds, until your eyes tear up. This stimulates your vagus nerve which impacts motility.
Consider an elimination diet to determine potential food triggers.
If possible, work with a professional and get a GI-MAP test when these strategies are not working. You may be dealing with a bacterial overgrowth or other GI imbalance contributing to your constipation. All clients in my Gut Reset Program get access to this testing, learn more here.
Note: Always check with your doctor or trusted health professional before making dietary changes or adding supplements or herbs. This is especially important if you have any diagnosed health condition are taking any medication, or are pregnant/breastfeeding.