"I have been dealing with constipation for years now and I'm so tired of it. It's making me cranky, bloated and it's messing with my appetite," a social media follower recently wrote. "I feel like I'm doing everything right, but I can't poop. Help!"
Unfortunately, I see many patients who struggle with constipation and other bathroom issues. Sometimes they are too embarrassed to admit their problem until it becomes too painful to bear.
My patients aren't alone. Researchers find that roughly 12 to 19 percent of the U.S. population (about 63 million people) suffer from constipation. And while constipation might be common, it's definitely not normal and it can have disastrous consequences.
Having healthy digestion and eliminating waste every day (ideally twice—yes, twice—a day) is critical to your overall health. Remember—your liver flushes out toxins and dumps them into your intestines. If your digestive system isn't working optimally, then all those toxins and waste gets reabsorbed into your body. So, it makes sense that constipation has been linked to multiple diseases, including cancer and even Parkinson's disease, plus it actually makes you feel like crap!
Then there are the practical problems. Constipation is often uncomfortable and can lead to symptoms including bloating, irritability, lack of appetite and vomiting.
I often ask my patients if they are regular. One answered yes, but when I followed up with how often she eliminated, she replied "once a week." Trust me: That is not regular. Other patients think constipation is normal but after treating them, their whole world turns around once they eliminate normally. Again, common does not mean normal, nor does it mean it's okay.
We now know so much about how to fix your gut, how to tend your inner garden (the flora in your gut), and how to reset your system, yet many of us maintain poor ways of eating and living. Like most problems, constipation is usually fixable without pharmaceutical drugs or other invasive procedures.
The first most important thing to get things moving consistently is addressing your diet, which causes most constipation. While chronic stress and antibiotic overuse can mess up your gut, a diet that is high in processed foods and sugars does great harm and promotes constipation.
Incorporating the following simple hacks will help most people get things moving:
Eat whole, real foods in their unprocessed forms. This is the first and easiest and healthiest first step to healing.
You need lots of fiber. Back in the day, as hunter-gatherer, we humans ate 100 to 150 grams of fiber a day. Today most modern humans are lucky if they get 8 grams daily. Fiber comes from plant foods. Besides eating lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, I like "super fibers" like ground flax seed. Try adding 2 tablespoons a day to your smoothies or salads for an easy fiber boost. Nuts, seeds and beans also contain high amounts of quality fiber; however, remember that beans can cause insulin spikes—so go easy if you are prone to blood sugar imbalances. You'll also want to avoid foods that cause constipation. Dairy tops this list, and gluten is a close second. I challenge you to give those up for at least three weeks and see how your digestion and overall health improve.
And here's something that often surprises my patients: Low-fat diets can contribute greatly to constipation, despite still being touted as healthy.
A clinical study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition put 11 men on a high-fat diet for two weeks and found that, when compared to a low-fat diet, a high-fat diet accelerated gastric emptying.
You'll want to incorporate lots of smart healthy fat sources include wild fatty fish like sardines and salmon, olive oil (which lubricates the digestive system) and avocados.
One of the best "laxatives" is MCT oil, which I recommend in my book Eat Fat, Get Thin. You can put it in your coffee (which, by the way, also helps you go) or use it in your smoothies and salad dressings.
Another big constipation culprit is magnesium deficiency. We don't eat enough of this underrated mineral (magnesium-rich foods include nuts, beans and greens), plus things like chronic stress, too much caffeine and sugar and toxic overload often deplete magnesium levels.
Even if you eat plenty of magnesium-rich foods, you probably need to supplement to get optimal levels. Use 200 mg to 1,000 mg of magnesium citrate daily. Gradually increase the dose until you go once or twice a day. If you take too much, you will get loose stools. If that happens, back off a bit.
Vitamin C is another great poop inducer. You can take 2,000 to 4,000 mg or more a day, along with magnesium supplementation. The same principle applies here: If you begin to get loose stools, just back off a bit.
Many patients are often deficient in healthy gut bugs, which is why I also recommend adding probiotics.
Exercise is a great laxative. So move your body everyday to help move those bowels.
And lastly don't forget water: Hydration is critical, so drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water each day.
Simply put, to optimize bowel function:
- Eat a whole foods, high-fiber diet (check out the Pegan Diet I explain in my book Eat Fat, Get Thin).
- Add 2 tablespoons of ground flax seeds to your daily diet.
- Eat more good fats and try MCT oil.
- Supplement with magnesium, vitamin C and probiotics.
- Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water a day.
- Exercise daily.
If you're still struggling after using the above tips, then consider having your thyroid looked at. An often-overlooked culprit is a sluggish thyroid, which affects 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men (about half of whom are not diagnosed or not treated properly). Check out my e-book, The UltraThyroid Solution, to figure out if this is a problem for you and what to do about it.
And there could be other underlying problems that a Functional Medicine practitioner could help address.