If you feel constipated, your first instinct might be to reach for a laxative, but the chances are you don't need one.

The best way to relieve constipation is simply to eat more fibre–about 20-35g a day. To cope with all that fibre the body needs more water, too. And don't forget about exercise, which can also help to keep things moving. Do all 3 things and you should be able to cure your constipation. If none of them work, experiment with a lactose-free diet–it may be the key to otherwise unexplained bouts of constipation.

Fibre to relieve constipation

  • Start your day with a high-fibre bran cereal. Some brands contain as much as 15g of insoluble fibre per serving. A word of advice: if you are not used to eating this much fibre, start with a smaller serving then work your way up. Otherwise you may experience wind, bloating and stomach cramps.
  • Fill up on cooked dried beans, prunes, pears, figs, oats and nuts. All are good sources of soluble fibre, the kind that turns to gel in the intestines and helps to soften the stool. Prunes also contain a compound called dihydroxyphenyl isatin, which stimulates the intestinal contractions that make you want to open your bowels.
  • Sultanas are also high in fibre and contain tartaric acid, which has a laxative effect.
  • Mix 1-2 teaspoons crushed psyllium seeds (also known as ispaghula) into a cup of hot water. Let it infuse for 2 hours, add lemon and honey to taste, then drink. Psyllium adds bulk and is the main ingredient in many over-the-counter, bulk-forming laxatives. You'll find the seeds in most pharmacies and health food shops.
  • Flaxseeds are high in fibre and also contain omega-3 fats, and are known to be beneficial to the heart and circulatory system. Have a tablespoon of the ground seeds, which are sold in health food shops, 2 or 3 times a day. Stir them into your breakfast cereal, add them to stewed apple or blend them into a fruit smoothie. Or sprinkle half a teaspoon into your orange juice at breakfast.
  • Foods such as muesli, apricots, figs, wholemeal bread, lentils, apples, dates, hummus, peanuts, porridge and banana are also high in fibre and will get your digestive system moving.

What to drink to relieve constipation

  • As you increase your intake of fibre, also be sure to drink lots of water–at least 8x 250ml glasses a day. Fibre is extremely absorbent, and if you don't drink enough, your stools may become small, hard and painful to pass.
  • You may have already discovered that the caffeine in coffee has a bowel-loosening effect. It induces a bowel movement by stimulating the colon. Just don't drink too much of it–caffeine is also diuretic and will eliminate fluid from your body.
  • If you don't like coffee, try any other hot drink first thing in the morning. Herbal or decaffeinated tea or a cup of hot water with a little lemon juice or honey may stimulate the colon as well. (Lemon juice is a natural laxative.)
  • Dandelion tea, which has a mild laxative effect, may also help you to become regular again. Steep a teaspoon of dried root in a cup of boiling water and drink a cup 3 times a day. You'll find dried dandelion root in health food shops.
  • Slippery elm powder contains high quantities of mucilage, which helps to bulk the stool; it also helps reduce abdominal bloating and eases the passage of the stool.

Natural remedies for constipation

  • Practitioners of acupressure say the following technique can help to stimulate your digestion and, therefore, your bowels. Apply pressure with your thumb and forefinger to the fleshy web between the thumb and forefinger of the other hand. Do this for 2 minutes every day while the problem persists. (Caution: This technique should not be used during pregnancy.)
  • Get regular exercise. There's good reason for a morning walk being known as a daily constitutional: when you move your body, you also help to move food through your bowel.
  • Never ignore nature's call. If you do, you're asking for a case of constipation. Always ‘go’ when your body tells you to.
  • Never try to force a bowel movement. You may give yourself haemorrhoids (piles) or anal fissures. These not only hurt, they also aggravate constipation because they narrow the anal opening. Also, straining on the toilet can strain your heart: it reduces your heart rate and pushes up blood pressure and can sometimes even cause a sudden heart attack.
  • Learn to relax. If you constantly find yourself in a tense or anxious state, your heart beats faster, your mouth dries up and your bowels tighten up as well. Take a break to practise deep breathing exercises or meditation, and see if that helps. Relaxing turns off the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism in your brain.

Alternative remedies for constipation

  • The herb cascara sagrada is so effective that it is even added to several over-the-counter laxatives. It's known as a ‘stimulant laxative’ because it stimulates the intestinal tract. Because it is so powerful and it interacts with numerous medicines, it should be used only under medical supervision. Don’t take it for more than 8 to 10 days; it can make your body lose too much water, potassium and salt–and with regular use, you can become dependent on it. (Caution: Do not use cascara sagrada if you have any other abdominal condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome, and drink plenty of water while taking it. It is not suitable for pregnant women or children.)
  • If other remedies fail, try senna. It should work within about 8 hours, so most people take it before bedtime. Take tablets or capsules according to the manufacturer's instructions, or ask a medical herbalist to make a liquid tincture for you, but don't plan on making it a long-term cure. With repeated use, senna can cause stomach cramps and diarrhoea. And, as with cascara sagrada, long-term use can cause dependency.
  • For a gentler alternative, use a glycerol suppository, available from pharmacies. Again, don't rely on this method or your constipation could end up worse than it was in the first place.

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