Flaxseeds — seeds from the flax plant — offer many health benefits. They contain omega-3 fatty acids and alphalinolenic acid, which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and fight inflammation, respectively.
But these are not the only benefits of flaxseed. It’s also a source of fiber and can be used to treat and prevent constipation.
Constipation refers to an inability to have a bowel movement or infrequent bowel activity — typically fewer than three stools a week. It’s a common gastrointestinal problem, and signs include hard, dry stools, abdominal pain, feeling sluggish, and bloating.
While over-the-counter drugs can help relieve constipation, natural remedies like flaxseed have proven to be effective in some people.
These shiny seeds are packed with other nutrients, too, like protein, potassium, magnesium, protein, and fiber. In fact, flaxseed is a rich source of soluble fiber.
Soluble fiber dissolves in water, making stools softer and easier to pass. This helps relieve constipation associated with irregularity and digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and diverticular disease. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed contains about 1.9 grams of fiber, 8 percent of Daily Value (DV).
What the research shows
In one study, 90 participants with functional constipation received either 50 grams of flaxseed flour per day, or 15 milliliters (mL) of lactulose solution per day for 4 weeks. At the end of the study, both groups reported increased bowel activity. Yet, the most significant improvement was in the flaxseed group.
On average, their bowel frequency increased from two movements per week to seven.
This is not the only benefit of flaxseed, though. The fatty acids, antioxidant properties, and fiber in flaxseed might also improve blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight.
Other benefits of flaxseed
- may lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure
- may reduce the frequency and severity of hot flashes in menopausal women
- may treat ulcerated colitis, diverticular disease, and irritable bowel syndrome
- may aid in weight management
- may help manage blood sugar
Flaxseed is available as:
- whole seeds
- ground seeds
- an oil
To relieve constipation, though, you’ll need to consume 1 to 4 tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day. Flaxseed oil and whole seeds might not be as effective.
You can stir flaxseed into oatmeal, soup, or cereal for added fiber. Or, add ground flaxseed to yogurt or smoothies. You can also add 1 tablespoon of ground flaxseed to a glass of water and drink one or two times a day.
Flaxseed is generally safe to use and has few reported side effects.
Only take the recommended amount per day, though, and drink plenty of water. Consuming more than the recommended amount or drinking too little water can worsen constipation and cause an intestinal blockage. Also, too much flaxseed can cause diarrhea.
Flaxseed contains lignans, a plant protein that acts like estrogen, yet there’s conflicting information on whether it’s safe to take during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.
According to the
If you take medications or other supplements, consult your doctor before using flaxseed, too. It might interact with blood clotting, blood pressure, and diabetes medications, as well as oral contraceptives.
Here’s a look at other steps to help relieve constipation:
- Increase physical activity. Exercise stimulates intestinal contractions and increases the frequency of bowel movements. Aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.
- Increase your fiber intake. Too little fiber also contributes to constipation. The recommended fiber intake for adults is 25 grams and 38 grams per day for women and men, respectively. Take a fiber supplement or eat high fiber foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds).
- Take a probiotic supplement. An imbalance of bacteria in the gut can decrease the frequency of bowel movements, too. Probiotics are live microorganisms that help maintain good bacteria in the gut. This promotes healthy digestion and regularity.
- Try an elimination diet. If you have irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive issues, certain foods may decrease bowel activity. Use an elimination diet to pinpoint foods that contribute to constipation and then avoid these when possible. Constipation-causing foods can include fried food, red meat, dairy products, alcohol, and gluten-containing foods.
- Drink caffeinated coffee. The caffeine in coffee can also stimulate intestinal contractions and promote stool activity. Drink caffeine in moderation, though. Too much caffeine can increase urination and the risk of dehydration. Dehydration can worsen constipation.
- Drink other warm liquids. Hot tea and other warm liquids can relax the digestive tract and increase bowel activity.
3 helpful facts worth considering
- Fiber intake PLUS exercise works better than fiber alone. A
2021 studyfound that people who consume dietary fiber AND are physically active were less constipated, compared with people who just consume dietary fiber.
- Not all fiber is created equal. Make sure you’re eating a good mix of soluble fiber (such as oats, apples, fruit, or supplements like Metamucil and Benefiber) and insoluble fiber (wheat bran, beans, nuts, potatoes), as they affect stool consistency differently. Read more here about these two types of fiber and the unique benefits of each.
- Certain medications may contribute to constipation. Talk with your doctor about the medications you’re taking. Some medications, such as opioids can slow gut motility. If you have chronic constipation, it may be helpful to decrease your dose or stop taking them altogether, per your doctor’s instructions. In severe cases, where stopping is not an option (such as cancer pain management), they can prescribe medications to counteract the effects of opioids on the gut.
Over-the-counter remedies such as stool softeners and laxatives can help relieve symptoms. For a natural approach, though, flaxseeds might increase regularity with little risk of side effects.
Talk with your doctor to learn if flaxseed is right for you.