“We need to treat the why, not just the symptom,” says Mark Pimentel, MD, an associate professor of gastroenterology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “Giving a laxative is not a solution. Diarrhea is not a treatment for constipation.”
Here are four diet and lifestyle strategies that can help you get some IBS constipation relief without needing to reach for a laxative.
1. Get Yourself Moving to Keep Things Moving
Exercise works wonders for our mood and our overall health — and a regimen of moderate exercise has been shown to help ease IBS symptoms, including constipation.
“Exercise helps the colon move [stool], so it’s very beneficial for relieving constipation,” says Dr. Pimental. By speeding up the time it takes stool to move through your large intestine, your body absorbs less water from your stool, which makes it easier to pass.
“You should do what you enjoy and what you’ll stick with,” says Megan Riehl, PsyD, a gastrointestinal psychologist at University of Michigan Health in Ann Arbor. “The key is to keep doing it and in moderation.”
RELATED: 5 Exercises for IBS Symptom Relief
2. Add the Right Kind of Fiber to Your Diet
Fiber is often recommended for people with IBS. But it’s important to keep in mind that all fiber is not created equal.
In their guidelines, the ACG recommends soluble fiber over insoluble fiber to reduce IBS symptoms, noting that this type of fiber may be particularly helpful for IBS constipation treatment.
Soluble fibers dissolve in water, pull water into the stool, and form a gel-like substance that helps move contents down the gastrointestinal tract.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve in water, so it stays intact as it moves through your digestive system.
Soluble fiber is found in many foods, including oats, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, carrots, barley, avocado, and Brussels sprouts. Reaching for these foods more often can help ensure that stools are soft and pass painlessly and easily.
Initially switching to a higher fiber diet, however, may increase gas and bloating. To help your body get used to more fiber, it can be a good idea to add these foods to your diet a little at a time.
Fiber supplements are also an effective way of adding fiber to your diet. Psyllium (the primary ingredient in the fiber supplement Metamucil) is rich in soluble fiber. You may want to start with a teaspoon a day, and then gradually increase.
“You really need to take 20 to 30 grams of soluble fiber to see a beneficial effect, and it needs to be a daily habit,” says Brennan Spiegel, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “But go slowly at first because you need to build up a tolerance for it.”
RELATED: Soluble vs. Insoluble Fiber: How to Know What’s Right for You if You Have IBS
3. Sip on Some Peppermint Tea
Peppermint has long been touted as a home remedy for digestive and other health woes. When it comes to IBS constipation relief, there’s some real science behind the claims.
And, in their IBS treatment guidelines, the ACG recommends the use of peppermint to help relieve abdominal pain and overall IBS symptoms.
“The menthol in peppermint acts on smooth muscle to relax it, so there’s biologic plausibility that it works,” says Dr. Lacy. He often asks his patients to drink a cup of peppermint tea or take a peppermint oil capsule half an hour before eating to prime their digestive muscles for a meal.
“It won’t work for everyone, but it tastes good, and it has almost no side effects, so it’s a treatment worth trying,” says Lacy.
RELATED: 6 Natural Remedies for IBS
4. Stay Hydrated
Hydration is important for everyone, but if your IBS symptoms skew toward the constipation end of the spectrum, it’s especially important to be mindful of your intake since water helps aid the digestion process.
When you’re dehydrated, the intestines will draw moisture away from your stool. This can make your stool drier and harder, which can cause or worsen constipation.
To stay hydrated, drink plenty of water throughout the day and especially before, during, and after exercise. It’s also a good idea to limit caffeine-containing drinks and alcohol, which can be dehydrating.
While staying properly hydrated is important for health and bowel function, it won’t cure your IBS constipation, says Pimentel. “It is important to increase moisture in the stool, but it’s a misnomer that you can outdrink constipation,” he explains.
Finding the best treatment to deliver relief from IBS constipation typically takes a multipronged approach that may include diet and lifestyle changes along with medications and other therapies.