Tips for Bowel Regularity

March 9, 2010 Updated: October 1, 2015

The rye bread in this bratwurst sandwich is a good source of fiber. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
The rye bread in this bratwurst sandwich is a good source of fiber. (Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

I eat a relatively low-carb diet, and as a result, eat very little bread. I literally cannot remember the last time I ate a sandwich. And when I do eat bread, I tend to opt for a thin slice or two of dark rye bread. I prefer rye to wheat bread partly because it releases sugar more slowly into the bloodstream. Also, rye is less allergenic than wheat, meaning that it’s less likely to trigger unwanted reactions that can manifest as abdominal discomfort, bloating, and fatigue.

Now there’s another reason to opt for rye bread over wheat: A study published in this month’s Journal of Nutrition has found that it is more effective at maintaining bowel regularity. In this study of constipated adults, rye bread (compared to wheat bread) eased the passing of stools, and increased their frequency too. It also reduced the amount of time it took for food to make its way along the length of the gut.

Rye bread is, of course, not the only food that may help maintain regularity in the bowel. Other relatively fiber-rich foods that can play a role here include oats, beans, pulses, fruits, and vegetables. Note I have omitted bran-rich foods such as high-fiber breakfast cereals and breads. As I mentioned above, I find wheat to be quite a common allergen, and wheat-bran fiber often seems to be an irritant to the gut.

Other natural approaches to constipation include:

1.      Use natural bulking agents. An effective and convenient way to increase your fiber intake is to add a natural bulking agent to the diet. 1 or 2 dessertspoonfuls of flaxseed each day usually have the desired effect.

2.      Drink more water. Without water, waste in the gut can become dry and stuck, a bit like the cork in the neck of a wine bottle. Drink enough water to keep your urine pale yellow in color throughout the course of the day.

3.      Be active. Regular exercise is well known to help relieve constipation. Aim to take about half and hour’s worth of aerobic exercise such as brisk walking or jogging on most days.

4.      Take magnesium. Magnesium is important to help keep the muscles in the lining of the gut working normally. Eating nuts and green leafy vegetables will help keep magnesium intake up, but supplementation (about 400 mg per day) may help too.

5.      Always respond to the call of nature. Failing to respond to the urge to open your bowels may condition your body to suppress this reflex and worsen constipation in the long term. Whenever possible, let nature take its course.

6.      Squat, don’t sit. Squatting, rather than sitting, is believed to be a better anatomical position for effective elimination of waste from the bowel. Putting your feet up on the bathroom bin may just help tip the balance in your favor. 

7.      Optimize thyroid function. Low thyroid function (hypothyroidism) can cause constipation. Common symptoms of this condition include weight gain, fatigue, sensitivity to cold, dry skin and hair, and low mood. Individuals with some or all of these symptoms should discuss the possibility of hypothyroidism with their doctors. However, it needs to be borne in mind that conventional tests for thyroid function are not as reliable as some would have us believe.

Please note: Constipation can sometimes be the results of a tumor in the colon, so a persistent change in bowel habit needs to be reported to one’s doctor.

Dr. John Briffa is a London-based physician and author with an interest in nutrition and natural medicine. His Web site is