Nobody likes to talk about constipation, yet it results in around 2 million doctor visits a year in the United States. Now think about how many people suffer through that back-up, bloated, uncomfortable feeling at home, and you’ll quickly see how common this hush-hush problem is.
For anyone trying to treat constipation at home, you’ve probably heard the rumor that prunes might give your gastrointestinal (or “GI”) tract the push it needs. Prunes may not be the sexiest of foods, but their sweet chew might be more appealing than a chalky fiber drink. So do they work to relieve constipation?
Scientific studies consistently find that patients find some relief from constipation with prunes or prune juice. “Similar to other fiber-rich foods, [prunes] have the ability to stimulate the gastrocolic reflex and promote downward movement of food,” says Anita Mirchandani, MS, RD, CDN, a spokesperson for the New York State Dietetic Association. (Visit Mirchandani's website here.) In other words, prunes can help keep food chugging through the stomach, to the intestines, and finally to—well—the exit.
The gastrocolic reflex refers to the triggering of the colon muscle after eating. After you’ve slurped down your morning smoothie, the gastrocolic reflex kicks the colon muscles into gear to help move food through the intestines.
A 2014 study in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics found that participants who ate 100 grams of prunes a day for three weeks saw improvement in both the frequency and consistency of their #2. Even for non-constipated participants, prunes brought a softer consistency to their stool that made “the go” a little easier.
So how does the humble prune work its constipation-fighting magic? You can trace its bowel-benefiting superpowers back to two key nutrients. “Prunes do help with constipation due to their 12 grams of insoluble fiber (in just one cup) and the natural laxative sorbitol,” says Maegan White, RDN, a diabetes educator and traveling wellness blogger.
Bonus: Prunes’ high sorbitol content (14.7 grams per every 100 grams of prunes) also helps prevent the sweet dried fruit from spiking blood sugar, according to a 2001 study in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. You can also find sorbitol in apples, figs, pears, and stone fruits (apricots, nectarines, and peaches).
You’ve probably heard about the health benefits of fiber, but there are actually two kinds to know about: soluble and insoluble fiber. Both help regulate digestion (and soluble fiber is especially good for people with irritable bowel syndrome), but insoluble fiber may be key to relieving constipation. “Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water,” says White. “It moves through the GI tract close to its original form, keeping the intestines cleared.”
While prunes may provide constipation relief, the best treatment for constipation is preventing it altogether, which takes a combination of lifestyle factors, including diet, exercise, and hydration. Here’s more info on what to eat to avoid constipation.
Wanna give prunes a try? “One trick I use with my clients is heating up prune juice,” says White. “The warmth acts as a gut stimulant and gets the bowels moving.” White also suggests drinking more water in general—at least two liters a day—for healthy, normal bowel function. Here’s how much water nutritionists recommend for a healthy body.