What Lifestyle Changes Can Help?

For some people with CIC, changes in lifestyle and diet may offer some relief from symptoms. In most cases, adding more fiber to the diet is going to be the thing that physicians recommend trying before turning to medications, either over-the-counter or prescription. But what does it mean to change diet and lifestyle and how can it be done?

How Fiber Helps

Fiber can help to treat both constipation and diarrhea. This is because fiber bulks the stool and absorbs water. In this way, it can help prevent stools from being either too loose or too hard, ensuring that the stool moves through the intestine and is easily passed without straining. 

The trick is getting enough of the right type of fiber to help stool move normally through the body.

The Key to Adding Fiber to Your Diet

Most experts recommend that people slowly add fiber to their diet. Fiber is not broken down and digested fully, which means that too much too soon could lead to gas and bloating. Going from almost no fiber in the diet to a recommended daily intake of fiber of 25 grams may bring on these symptoms.

This could lead you to think that fiber might be doing more harm than good. Instead, increasing fiber slowly over a period of time may be the answer. Replacing low-fiber foods in the diet with high-fiber recipes over a period of a few weeks should give the body time to adjust.

What Type of Fiber Is Best?

Not all types of fiber are the same. For some people, there's a period of trial and error to determine which sources of fiber will help most with relieving constipation while not leading to gas or bloating. Eating fiber at meals is a way to get started, especially for those who enjoy some of the many foods that contain fiber. For those who find it more difficult to add much fiber to meals, or who don't generally enjoy foods that are more high fiber, a fiber supplement could be helpful.

There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble, and most people need a mix of both in order to keep digestion moving well. Many foods, especially whole grains and vegetables, contain high amounts of both soluble and insoluble fiber.

Soluble Fiber

Many people will find soluble fiber easier to tolerate. It dissolves in water and takes on a texture like gel. It's typically recommended that fiber be obtained through foods, but a fiber supplement containing methylcellulose or psyllium husks could also be used. Some common foods that are high in soluble fiber include:

Apples Barley Beans
Brussels sprouts Eggplant Flaxseed
Fresh peas Grapes Lentils
Nuts Oatmeal Okra
Oranges Prunes (about half soluble, half insoluble) Strawberries
Seeds Whole grains  

Insoluble Fiber

Insoluble fiber bulks up the stool and helps it move more quickly through the digestive system. This is going to be important for people who are having constipation, so adding a healthy amount of insoluble fiber to the diet may help in relieving symptoms.

Some people may be more sensitive to insoluble fiber, so just as with soluble fiber, taking time to add it slowly to the diet will offer the best chance at helping with the constipation while avoiding other stomach symptoms. In general, foods with whole wheat in them and vegetables are going to be insoluble fiber-dense. Common ones include:

Black-eye peas Beets Broccoli
Brussels sprouts Corn Green beans
Kale Kidney Beans Lentils
Navy beans Pinto beans Popcorn
Raspberries Sweet potato Turnips

Are There Foods to Avoid?

In general, foods that include fiber are going to be helpful and foods that are low-fiber are not going to be helpful for constipation. Adding more fiber to the diet has the added benefit of eating fewer foods that have little or no fiber.

While most dietitians will tell you that there are no foods that you should never eat, when constipation is a problem, there are certainly foods that may increase symptoms. Foods that are constipating will vary from person to person, but some that are often associated with worsening symptoms include:

  • Dairy products (such as cheese or ice cream)

  • Fried foods

  • High fat foods (potato chips, convenience foods, fast foods)

  • Red meat

Make Sure to Drink Enough Water

For people with CIC, getting enough liquids every day is vital. How much water each person needs is going to be somewhat individualized, but in general, it's recommended that adults follow the 8X8 rule: eight glasses of 8 ounces of water a day (which is also two liters, or half a gallon).

This is not easy for most people, but when constipation is part of the picture, focusing on liquid intake needs to be a priority. Drinks that contain caffeine, such as coffee, tea, or sodas, may not be hydrating. Other types of drinks may contain sugar or other additives, so water is going to be the best choice for hydration.

Water gets boring, but infusing it with some cucumber, lime, lemon, or other fruits can go a long way towards making it taste better and therefore making it easier to hit that daily water goal.

What About Exercise?

Exercise has a multitude of health benefits, and one is that it may help some people to pass stools more often.

It's recommended that every adult have 30 minutes of exercise a day. This doesn't have to be high-impact exercise at a gym! It could mean taking a walk outside or on a treadmill.

Some studies have shown that people who started walking as a form of exercise have shorter colonic transit times, which means that stool moves through the intestine quicker. For people with constipation, a brisk walk along with adding fiber to the diet and drinking more water may go a long way towards easing symptoms.