Treatment of Constipation With Diet & Lifestyle Changes

Adding fiber to the diet can be one way to treat constipation, and it's very healthy overall too. Image © Floortje / Vetta / Getty Images

Constipation is a common problem for children and adults. In many cases, the treatment for uncomplicated constipation includes some changes to diet, lifestyle, and bowel habits.

Constipation that is chronic, or has an underlying cause such as a medication or a disease, may require evaluation and treatment under the care of a physician. In some cases, people think they are constipated when in fact their bowel movements are in the normal range for frequency and shape or size. See your physician for advice if constipation becomes a recurrent problem or if diet and lifestyle changes are not providing any relief.

The good news is that most people find relief from constipation by paying attention to their bowel movements and by making some small changes. Trying one or two of the ideas below may help in bringing some relief, without using enemas or laxatives (which can be habit forming). Talk to your doctor if your constipation doesn't respond to anything, or if you have severe pain and bloating.

Treating Constipation With Lifestyle Changes

Act on the Urge to Defecate. Ignoring the urge "to go" can lead to constipation. Instead, make time each day to have a bowel movement. Some people find it easier in the morning, while others may discover that later in the day, such as after dinner, may work better. Taking the time to relax and allow the bowel movement to happen naturally is optimal.

Add Exercise to Your Day. Exercising can help keep your body working properly, both inside and out. People who are bedridden or unable to move about because of disability or disease often experience constipation. If you are able, getting regular exercise, even a daily walk, can help keep your bowels moving properly.

Add Fiber to Your Diet. In Western countries (such as the U.S.), the lack of fiber in the diet is a frequent contributor to the problem of constipation. Many people are unsure as to how to add more dietary fiber, or which kind of fiber would be most effective. Some foods, including prunes, figs, licorice, and rhubarb, have natural laxative properties and can be helpful in relieving constipation. Getting fiber through the foods one eats is optimal, but there are many fiber supplements (see bulk-forming laxatives below) that can be taken to help treat or prevent constipation.

Treating Constipation With Laxatives And Enemas

Bulk-Forming Laxatives. There are several different types of fiber supplements available commercially that can help to treat constipation. These are known as "bulk-forming" laxatives because they work to make stool soft and therefore more easily passed. These supplements can also help treat diarrhea by absorbing water and making stool more solid. Bulk-forming laxatives are not habit-forming, and most can be used every day and on a long-term basis. Your healthcare provider can help you choose the right type of fiber supplement for you.

Over-the-Counter Laxatives. There are a number of laxatives available in drugstores that can help in cases where constipation is not relieved by diet and lifestyle changes. Even though these medications can be purchased without a prescription, always check with a physician about taking a laxative. Laxatives can help in relieving constipation on a short-term basis, but they are not a long-term solution because they can be habit-forming, and even worsen constipation when used improperly.

Enemas. Enemas are used to help clean out the bowel before a diagnostic test, such as a colonoscopy, but can also help relieve constipation. An enema is a short-term solution, and not appropriate for the treatment of chronic constipation. This is because using enemas regularly can impair the colon from working properly and eventually lead to a dependency on them to have a bowel movement.

Biofeedback and Bowel Retraining for Constipation

Biofeedback. Biofeedback is a type of treatment that can help treat several conditions, including constipation. During biofeedback, a person's temperature, heart rate, and muscle activity are monitored with electrodes. The information provided through this monitoring can help a person learn, through a specific targeted effort, to relax the muscles needed to have a bowel movement. The benefits of this treatment are that it is non-invasive and can work long-term. The downside is that it has not been studied extensively, it takes significant time and effort, and may be difficult to find a practitioner to administer treatment.

Bowel Retraining. In some cases, bowel retraining may be helpful in learning how to have a bowel movement that is soft and easily passed. Retraining the bowel takes time and a conscious effort. The goal is to create a daily schedule and routine that helps make having a bowel movement an easier and more comfortable process. This method takes time and effort and should be undertaken with the help of a physician.​

The Bottom Line

In cases of uncomplicated constipation, some changes in diet and lifestyle are all that will be needed to meet the goal of a soft, well-formed, easily passed stool. When disease or medication is the cause of constipation, other treatments might be needed. Always consult with a physician regarding constipation that becomes chronic or if enemas or stimulant laxatives are needed to have a bowel movement.

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Article Sources
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  • National Cancer Institute. "Constipation." Gastrointestinal Complications (PDQ®) 12 May 2015. 
  • The UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders. "Bowel Retraining Program." UNC School of Medicine 2011.