Constipation

Constipation is an uncomfortable condition that’s often a direct cause of poor diet and lifestyle. Eating a diet rich in plant foods alleviates constipation, mostly due to the fiber-rich content.

Cases per year

Approximately 4 million people in the United States have constipation, resulting in 2.5 million doctor visits annually. 

General frequency

Constipation affects 16 in every 100 adults in the United States, and affects 33 out of 100 adults ages 60 and over 1.

Risk

Chronic constipation can interfere with daily life, and cause haemorrhoids (piles) if it persists long-term.

Treating constipation with a plant-based diet and lifestyle medicine

One of my patients significantly improved their constipation and haemorrhoids by incorporating more fiber into their diet.

Dr Laurie Marbas

Podcasts

Here are some top scientific studies that support the results our clinicians have seen first-hand:

Following a plant-based diet results in more regular bowel movements

Nutrition and lifestyle in relation to bowel movement frequency: a cross-sectional study of 20 630 men and women in EPIC–Oxford

A study comparing 20, 630 individuals following different dietary patterns, from omnivore to completely plant-based, found that those eating a strictly plant-based diet are three times more likely to have daily bowel movements, thus less likely to be constipated. The researchers found a significant association between dietary fiber and bowel movements, fiber is found only in plant foods and completely devoid in animal products, which is one cause of constipation in people following the standard American diet 2.

Vegetarians and semi-vegetarians have more frequent bowel movements than omnivores

Defecation Frequency and Stool Form in a Coastal Eastern Indian Population

Another study looking at 1,200 participants from coastal Eastern India supports these findings. The researchers found that omnivores had fewer daily bowel movements and harder stools than vegetarians and semi-vegetarians, who had a higher number of daily stools 3.

Using a plant-based diet in hospitals treats severe constipation 

Efficacy of a Plant-based Diet (Semi-lacto-ovo-vegetarian Diet) for Treating Constipation

In this study, researchers took 11 patients ages 16 to 92 who all had serious constipation unresponsive to conventional laxatives. These patients were provided a plant-based diet whilst in hospital, for two weeks, with incredible results. In 10 of the 11 patients (91% of the participants) the plant-based diet was highly effective at relieving constipation whilst causing no side effects, unlike the medications previously prescribed. The plant-based diet was found to be both safe and effective for treating constipation, and the researchers concluded that plant based diets should be introduced into hospitals to help patients suffering from serious constipation 5. In this case, the plant based diet likely got to the root cause of constipation and was more effective than initial medications.

More information about constipation and treatment with lifestyle medicine

What is constipation?

Chronic constipation is a condition in which a person has infrequent bowel movements or difficulty passing stools, or both. It is generally described as having fewer than three bowel movements a week for several weeks 6

Constipation can be very uncomfortable and negatively affect a person's quality of life 5

What causes constipation?

The most common causes of constipation are: 

  • Medications 
  • Lack of exercise 
  • Not drinking enough liquids
  • Lack of fiber in the diet (fiber is found only in plant foods and absent from all animal products)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome 
  • Ignoring the urge to have a bowel movement 
  • Problems with intestinal function 
  • Overuse of laxatives 

A diagram showing what constipation is, stools get stuck in the rectum which causes pain, intestinal gas, and bloating

Symptoms 

Symptoms can vary between individuals. They may include stools that are hard, dry, or lumpy, and a feeling that not all the stool has passed. Bowel movements may also be difficult and/or painful, and may be fewer than three times a week. 

Constipation can leave you feeling bloated or uncomfortable, sluggish, and experiencing abdominal pain. 

Diagnosis 

Constipation is a symptom-based disorder. Your doctor will likely use your medical history, including a description of the constipation, the duration of symptoms, and frequency of bowel movements to diagnose your condition. They may also:

  • Ask for your family history
  • Conduct a physical examination, which may involve a digital rectal examination (DRE)
  • Use other medical tests to diagnose and find the cause of your constipation 7

Treatment 

Treatments aim to make your stools softer and easier to pass.

Most cases of constipation can be treated with changes to your diet and lifestyle. Changes to diet include increasing the fiber in your diet to 25-35 grams a day, by increasing your intake of plant-foods and limiting processed and animal products. Drinking more water and increasing your physical activity levels can also help move food through the colon and relieve constipation. Stress-reduction techniques such as meditation can help, too.

Diet and lifestyle changes can address the root cause of constipation and avoid the need to take medications. Studies have shown that individuals following a plant-based diet are less likely to suffer from constipation and hard stools, and have more regular bowel movements. 

Finding a dedicated and empathetic physician who can help treat constipation without medications can achieve long-term relief from this condition.

Think you may be suffering with this and need help? Join us today to make a change. 

References 

1. Bharucha, A. E., Dorn, S. D., Lembo, A. & Pressman, A. American Gastroenterological Association Medical Position Statement on Constipation. Gastroenterology 144, 211–217 (2013).

2. Sanjoaquin, M. A., Appleby, P. N., Spencer, E. A. & Key, T. J. Nutrition and lifestyle in relation to bowel movement frequency: a cross-sectional study of 20 630 men and women in EPIC–Oxford. Public Health Nutr. 7, 77–83 (2004).

3. Panigrahi, M. K., Kar, S. K., Singh, S. P. & Ghoshal, U. C. Defecation Frequency and Stool Form in a Coastal Eastern Indian Population. J. Neurogastroenterol. Motil. 19, 374–380 (2013).

4. Nath, P. & Singh, S. P. Defecation and Stools in Vegetarians. in Vegetarian and Plant-Based Diets in Health and Disease Prevention 473–481 (Elsevier, 2017). doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-803968-7.00026-5.

5. Division of Gastroenterology, Nakadori General Hospital, 3-15 Misono-cho, Minami-Dori, Akita City 010-8577, Japan et al. Efficacy of a Plant-based Diet (Semi-lacto-ovo-vegetarian Diet) for Treating Constipation. Recent Prog. Nutr. 2, 1–1 (2021).

6. Fernández-Bañares, F. Nutritional care of the patient with constipation. Best Pract. Res. Clin. Gastroenterol. 20, 575–587 (2006).

7. Diagnosis of Constipation | NIDDK. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/constipation/diagnosis.

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