After I gave birth to my daughter, my mother-in-law brought me a six-pack of prune juice. Although I was hoping for a different kind of six-pack to celebrate the birth of my first child, I have to admit that my MIL was on to something. Constipation is a huge problem for both new mothers and mothers-to-be. When you’re pregnant, your body slows digestion, so it can retrieve maximum nutrients from your food. New mamas are often dealing with stitches from that final push or a C-section. And in case the physical discomfort isn’t bad enough, there is the psychological aspect to deal with: Last time something exited that region, it hurt like you know what. Who’s to blame you for being a little hesitant with your number twos?
Although you’re dealing with an age-old problem, you don’t have to rely on age-old remedies. We are a new generation with our own tricks up our sleeves! Ditch the prunes, Metamucil and bran muffins of yore, and try out a few more appealing ways to keep your digestive system running smoothly.
Rethink your toppings, not your cereal
Many women are quick to grab an all-bran cereal the moment they feel the grunt of constipation, but Margaret Wertheim, MS, RD, LDN, a private practice nutritionist in the Mid-west, explains that women should put more emphasis on what is going on top of their bowl of breakfast. “I would recommend women add raspberries to their cereal before switching to an all-bran option,” Wertheim shares. Raspberries are a superfood for fiber. They contain both soluble fiber, to keep things soft, and insoluble fiber, to keep things moving. Strawberries are another great option as they also contain significant amounts of both soluble and insoluble fiber.
Wertheim points out that since dairy foods can be constipating, you may also want to swap your milk for a calcium-rich, nondairy alternative like unsweetened almond milk or fortified coconut milk. If you do opt for dairy, reach for yogurt—its powerful probiotics aid in digestion.
A little fat, a lot of help
In this fat-loathing society, many women strive to eliminate any and all fat from their diet. Not so fast, advises Wertheim: “Fat is lubrication for the system.” This does not mean a free-for-all on french fries, but tossing some veggies with coconut oil or drizzling some olive oil on your salad are both moves in the right direction. Wertheim also loves avocados. They not only provide “good” fat but are also packed with soluble and insoluble fiber—a good excuse to pass on prunes and go for guac!
Whole grains not the whole truth
Wertheim explains that many women focus too much on upping their fiber through whole-grain breads and grains, while ignoring the more powerful fiber found in fruits and vegetables. Yes, whole-wheat bread is better than white bread, but to get the most fiber, you will want to swap that sandwich for a nice big salad. Fruit and vegetable fiber is more beneficial than the fiber in whole grains.
If the idea of eating a huge salad turns you a little green, re-think your definition of salad. Try serving hot dinners like pasta or grilled meats atop a bed of baby spinach and arugula. The meat softens the greens, and the sauce from the pasta or the juice from the meat provides an all-in-one salad dressing. You can also give your everyday salad a makeover by adding berries, diced apples and roasted nuts. Doing so will ensure a variety of tastes and textures, and the added fruit will boost your fiber intake while the nuts add healthy fats. It’s a winning combination!
Power of fermentation
Need a break from the produce aisle? The probiotics in fermented foods like kimchi, miso and kombucha can help regulate your system. If these foods are a little too exotic for your tastes, then go for the German favorite sauerkraut. Make yourself a Reuben, or serve it up as a side dish. Yogurt and kefir are also probiotic powerhouses, but Wertheim warns that it’s important to keep these in check, as dairy can be the root of the problem.
A body in motion
It’s not just what you put in your body that helps with digestion, it’s also how you move your body. Jared Markiewicz, an American College of Sports Medicine certified trainer in Madison, Wisconsin, points out that blood flow increases five-fold during physical activity. If your heart is pumping five liters per minute when resting, for example, it pumps up to 25 liters per minute when you are moving. That alone can facilitate digestion. Wertheim and Markiewicz agree that one of the best solutions to constipation is to be active. How much activity do you need? According to Markiewicz, that largely has to do with your fitness level. If you prefer the couch to the gym, try walking 15 to 30 minutes a day. If you’re already active, you may want to consider changing things up. Do you normally run? Try the stationary bike or switching to the elliptical machine.
Work those abs
Though your middle may be growing during pregnancy, it’s not an excuse to ignore your abdominal muscles. Markiewicz encourages pregnant (and postpartum) women to keep up with the abdominal work via modified half planks and side planks. This gives you much needed strength during delivery, aids in postpartum recovery, and improves your digestive health. Markiewicz explains that engaging core muscles triggers digestion. When you engage the deep core skeletal muscles, you activate the involuntary smooth muscles that propel the digestive system. The two muscle groups work hand in hand.
Twist and open
Yoga practice is a great way to stay active, engage your core, and increase blood flow. Erin Birk, certified prenatal yoga instructor and health coach in Madison, Wisconsin, encourages her students to get blood circulating near the core where digestion occurs. She recommends poses that gently twist the body to aid in digestion. For women who are pregnant, this means twisting at your bra line, instead of at your waist. The Sufi Grind is another easy yoga move you can do at home to engage your core. Start by sitting cross-legged on the floor. Place your hands gently on your knees, sit up straight, and then slowly move your torso in a circular motion, keeping your spine straight. This engages your core muscles and drives your blood to your digestive organs.
Take a deep breath
Both Markiewicz and Birk focus on the importance of breathing in their work with the pre- and postpartum population. Markiewicz walks clients through multistep breathing exercises where you inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth in successive positions (laying on the ground, getting on all fours, kneeling, and standing up). For every count of inhale, you should have two counts of exhale. This deep breathing activates the core musculature, which in turn can trigger the digestive process. For Birk, the breathing is psychological as well as physiological. When you are taking shallow breaths, it signals to your brain that you are anxious and possibly in danger. While you may have heard of the fight or flight impulse, you likely haven’t heard of the fight, flight or eliminate impulse. The reason? When your body senses danger, going to the bathroom is not a priority.
Even fiber-rich foods and physical activity won’t help if you’re not drinking enough water. Wertheim refers to the Medical Institute’s recommendation when advising her clients: 3 liters of fluid per day for pregnant women and 3.8 liters for new moms. Ten 8-ounce glasses will get you to 3 liters, and 11 glasses will fill the postpartum quota. Bored by water? Try flavoring it with lemon, lime or cucumber slices. Wertheim tells clients to add a splash of fruit juice to their water or consider making some tea. “Hot water can also get things going,” Wertheim explains, so try curling up with some herbal tea or hot water with lemon.
Constipation is not just for senior citizens and neither are the remedies. Leave the all-bran diet for your great aunt Edna, and use these modern methods to keep you feeling more like your regular self.