A Gastroenterologist’s Surprising Best Way to Relieve Constipation

Updated: Sep. 22, 2022

Can't seem to go? A doctor shares a very specific way he treats patients' constipation, with a few lifestyle insights worth considering.

Don’t worry—you’re not the only one having a hard time going number two. In fact, constipation is a frequent problem for Americans, affecting 16% of adults and nearly a third of Americans over the age of 60. Nearly 2.5 million Americans visit their physician every year over this commonly occurring issue. So is there a quick, easy way to get constipation relief?

The Healthy @Reader’s Digest spoke with Dr. Kevin M. Cronley, MD, a gastroenterologist with Gastro Health in Cincinnati, OH, who gave us specific insight into how he helps his patients deal with constipation—with a couple of tips that could be game-changers for you.

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Most doctors suggest you should increase your fiber

“The initial treatments gastroenterologists typically recommend include adding fiber supplements, which are available in a variety of supplements and natural foods including fruit vegetables, and whole grains,” says Dr. Cronley.

Fiber is an essential nutrient to bulk up stool and move it easily through the digestive tract, and the typical intake is through high-fiber foods. Nevertheless, while the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that you should be getting at least 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day, 90% of women and 97% of men in America are getting an average of just 15 grams.

For those not getting enough fiber from the diet, a supplement can be beneficial—and research agrees. A 2022 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that fiber supplementation significantly improved constipation in patients after four weeks, increasing the frequency of bowel movements and improving the consistency of the feces. Psyllium and pectin were the most effective supplement forms, and taking doses greater than 10 grams a day proved to work well for patients with chronic constipation.

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Another supplement can work for constipation relief, too

While fiber tends to be a go-to recommendation from gastroenterologists, Dr. Cronley points out that a magnesium supplement can be surprisingly beneficial for getting stool moving in your system. “Some patients will find relief from constipation with magnesium supplements,” he says.

As a paper from Michigan Medicine explains, magnesium helps to increase the amount of water in the intestines, which helps with bowel movements. Some doctors find that those with gastrointestinal disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome, tend to have lower magnesium levels. While consuming magnesium-rich foods like green vegetables, nuts, and whole grain products help with getting an adequate amount of magnesium in a day, taking a supplement can help those who are deficient and experiencing trouble in the bathroom.

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A gastroenterologist’s #1 best tip for constipation relief

While fiber and magnesium tend to be go-to nutrients—and supplements—recommended by gastroenterologists, Dr. Cronley points out that the very first tip he typically gives his patients is to make small tweaks in their current lifestyle. “Lifestyle modifications can be a great start to treating constipation, and these include ensuring you are staying adequately hydrated and staying physically active.”

Fluid loss and dehydration have been linked to increased issues with constipation, and drinking enough water is important for stool frequency when consuming a high-fiber diet. Increased physical activity has also been shown to help patients with chronic constipation, especially when it’s paired with the intake of dietary fiber, according to a 2017 randomized controlled clinical trial through the Research Ethical Committee of the Faculty of Physical Therapy at Cairo University.

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Still can’t go? Here’s what to do

If you’re really looking to clear out your system, Dr. Cronley says “patients with severe constipation may find relief from Hygieacare, a medical grade colonic, available in some cities in the US for patients with refractory constipation.” (Refractory constipation may be described as persistent constipation in spite of significant treatment.) The Hygirelief treatment is used for constipation relief and bloating, while their Hygiprep is used for colonoscopy preparation.

However, if you are noticing an abnormal level of constipation, it could be a sign of a greater issue. “If the constipation is new, lasts longer than three weeks, or is associated with any symptoms such as rectal bleeding or weight loss, it is important to see a physician to ensure something more serious is not contributing,” says Dr. Cronley.

Blockages in the colon can cause bowel-related issues and even are linked to rectal or colon cancer, says the Mayo Clinic. Some cases of constipation can also be a sign of a neurological problem, which affects the nerves that cause muscles in the colon and rectum to move stool through the intestines. These types of diseases include multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, and stroke.

If you are finding you are dealing with unexplained, uncomfortable constipation, be sure to talk to your physician about treatment to mitigate your risk.

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