Are you passing stools that are hard, dry or lumpy? Are your stools difficult or painful to pass? If the answer is yes, you may be suffering from constipation.
Constipation is a condition in which you may have fewer than three bowel movements a week, stools that are dry or difficult to pass, or a feeling that you haven’t passed all the stool. It is one of the most common gastrointestinal problems in the world.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 16 out of 100 adults have symptoms of constipation. Among those ages 60 and older, about 33 out of 100 have symptoms of constipation (1).
Certain risk factors can increase your risk of suffering from constipation, such as pregnancy, aging, weakened pelvic muscles, certain medicines or dietary supplements, and certain health problems, including functional gastrointestinal disorders and thyroid disease.
Other key risk factors for constipation include being dehydrated, not getting enough fiber in your diet and certain nutritional deficiencies.
Passing hard, dry stool is painful. Plus, suffering from constipation can be tough, as it can affect your daily life and give you immense stress.
To deal with constipation, many people look for over-the-counter products to soften their stool. But using such products can cause side effects like cramps, nausea, bloating, gas and other gut problems.
Everyone experiences constipation at some point or another, but the good news is there are a number of safe, gentle and natural remedies to both relieve and prevent constipation.
Here are the top 10 ways to soften your stools naturally.
The very first thing that you can do to soften your stools is to increase your fiber intake. Fiber is a natural laxative and experts recommend that you get at least 20 to 35 grams of dietary fiber each day.
A 2012 meta-analysis published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology reports that dietary fiber intake can increase stool frequency in patients with constipation (2).
There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Both are important for healthy bowel movements. Soluble fiber soaks up the moisture in food and slows digestion, which helps keep your bowel movements regular. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to your stool and can help quickly relieve constipation.
- Some good sources of soluble fiber are oranges, apples, carrots, barley, oatmeal and flaxseeds.
- Some good sources of insoluble fiber are nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, unprocessed grains and dark leafy vegetables like kale or spinach.
Water is essential for the digestive system to function properly. In fact, inadequate water intake can be the reason behind hard stools. Stool becomes hard when it doesn’t have enough water content as it enters the colon. Low fluid intake decreases the mass and frequency of stools.
A 2013 study published in the Malaysian Journal of Nutrition reports that insufficient intake of dietary fiber and fluids are associated with aggravated constipation symptoms (3).
So, when you have hard stools, increase your fluid intake. This becomes even more important if you start eating more fiber.
Different people have different water requirements. As a general rule, if your urine is dark yellow, low in volume and infrequent, it means you need to increase your fluid intake.
Drink healthy fluids like water, coconut water, lemon water and homemade fruit or vegetable juice. At the same time, avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages, as they can cause dehydration.
3. Mineral Oil
Mineral oil is a lubricant laxative, and it can play a key role in softening stools naturally.
When taken orally, it promotes bowel movements by coating the stool as well as the bowels in a waterproof film. This helps the stool pass easily without causing any problem.
A 2012 study published in Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery reports that mineral oil is an indigestible lipid compound that provides lubrication and emulsification of the fecal mass. However, long-term use can cause malabsorption of fat-soluble vitamins, seepage, incontinence, and rarely lipoid aspiration pneumonia (4).
You can find mineral oil at most pharmacies and drug stores. You need to combine it with a liquid, such as milk, juice or water, to consume it.
Before taking mineral oil, it is recommended to consult your doctor.
Prunes, also called dried plums, are another good remedy for constipation.
The insoluble and soluble fiber present in prunes increase the bulk and water content of stools, which in turn helps promote smooth bowel movements.
Also, the sugar alcohol called sorbitol and other phenols present in prunes have a laxative effect.
A 2011 study published in the Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics reports that dried plums are safe, palatable and more effective than psyllium for the treatment of mild to moderate constipation, and should be considered as a first-line therapy (5).
Any of the following are good options for consuming prunes to ease constipation.
- Eat 1 or 2 fresh plums or 3 or 4 prunes daily.
- Blend 2 or 3 prunes into some warm almond milk, and drink it at night before going to bed.
- Add 3 or 4 chopped prunes to 1 cup of whipped yogurt, and eat it daily.
5. Fennel Seeds
Fennel seeds are also helpful in softening your stools and preventing constipation.
Fennel seeds encourage smooth muscle movement in the digestive tract, resulting in healthy digestion and regular bowel movements.
- Dry roast 1 cup of fennel seeds. Grind them and sieve the mixture. Store the powder in a jar. Take ½ teaspoon of this powder daily with warm water.
- Alternatively, you can drink fennel tea. Add 1 teaspoon of crushed fennel seeds to 1 cup of hot water. Let it steep for 5 minutes. Strain it. Drink this tea a few times a day.
6. Epsom Salt
Epsom salt is often recommended for soothing sore muscles. But being rich in magnesium, Epsom salt can also help deal with troublesome stools.
A 2017 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition reports that natural mineral water rich in magnesium and sulfate improved bowel movements in subjects with constipation (6).
- Dissolve 1 to 2 teaspoons of Epsom salt into 1 cup of water and sip it slowly. You can add some lemon juice to make it more palatable. Drink it a few times a week only. Do not consume more than is recommended.
- Alternatively, add 2 cups of Epsom salt to lukewarm bathwater. Soak in it for about 30 minutes to allow your body to absorb the magnesium through your skin. Do this 1 or 2 times a week.
7. Castor Oil
When you are constipated, castor oil can come to your rescue. It is generally considered safe. However, castor oil should be taken only for severe cases of constipation.
This oil can stimulate your intestines and lubricate your bowels to ensure effortless bowel movements.
- Simply swallow 1 to 2 teaspoons of castor oil on an empty stomach. To improve the taste, you can take it with a fruit juice like orange juice.
Caution: Do not use castor oil in excess and avoid it completely if you are pregnant.
8. Psyllium Husk
To soften your stools naturally, a psyllium husk supplement can be helpful.
It is a type of insoluble fiber that works as a bulk-forming laxative that helps enlarge stools, making them easier to pass.
It absorbs water in your intestines, swelling and forming a gel-like mass that helps soften and move waste through your digestive tract.
Psyllium husk is available at most drug stores in the form of powder and caplets. Always consult your doctor before taking a supplement.
- Mix ½ to 1 teaspoon of psyllium husk into a glass of warm water. Drink it once daily before going to bed.
- If taking the caplets, follow the instructions properly.
Note: When taking psyllium husk, be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day or it may cause bloating in some cases.
Incorporating Greek yogurt or other probiotics into your daily diet is another safe and effective way to soften your stools naturally.
Greek yogurt contains live bacterial cultures (probiotics) that create the right environment for your digestive system to stay healthy and maintain regularity.
- You can eat 2 to 3 cups of plain Greek yogurt on a daily basis. You can also top it with fresh fruit or nuts. Or you can make a smoothie containing the yogurt.
- Include other fermented and cultured foods like kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut in your diet.
- If you want to take a probiotic supplement, consult your doctor first.
When experiencing hard stools, take up exercise as soon as you can.
Exercise helps stimulate digestion because as you move, your body also moves stool through the gut, which in turn aids in reducing gastrointestinal problems like constipation. Exercising will help food move faster through the large intestine and help the bowel muscles contract, moving waste along.
On the other hand, lack of exercise leads to weakness in the intestines, making it hard to pass waste regularly.
One of the best exercises to help deal with constipation is walking. Aim for 10 to 30 minutes of walking a day, especially after having your meal, to help with bowel movements.
Swimming, riding a stationary bicycle or doing yoga on a regular basis can also help the intestines and stimulate bowel movements.
- Try using squat toilets, as they are the best when you are experiencing constipation.
- Start every meal with raw fruit, a vegetable or salad.
- Avoid straining and sitting for long periods of time.
- When suffering from constipation, try to eat five or six small meals throughout the day, instead of three large meals.
- When suffering from constipation, avoid cheese and dairy products. The lactose in them can cause gas, bloating and further constipation for some people.
- When your body gives the signal that it is ready to have a bowel movement, do not ignore it.
- Drinking warm water with some honey on an empty stomach can also help.
- Eating 3 to 5 figs every day can also help with constipation.
- If you are dealing with recurring constipation, see a health care professional.
- Definition & Facts for Constipation. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/constipation/definition-facts. Published May 01, 2018.
- Effect of dietary fiber on constipation: a meta analysis. World Journal of Gastroenterology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23326148. Published December 28, 2012.
- Stool patterns of Malaysian adults with functional constipation: association with diet and physical activity. Malaysian Journal of Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24800384. Published April 2013.
- Medical Management of Constipation. Clinics in Colon and Rectal Surgery. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3348737/. Published March 2012.
- Randomised clinical trial: dried plums (prunes) vs. psyllium for constipation. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21323688. Published April 2011.
- Efficacy and safety of a natural mineral water rich in magnesium and sulphate for bowel function: a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study. European Journal of Nutrition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26582579. Published March 2017.