Real talk: Feeling bloated or backed up can be very uncomfortable. While constipation might not be a topic that comes up in your group chats, rest assured that if you’re dealing with it, you’re not alone. Roughly 16 percent of adults in the U.S. experience constipation and that number jumps to 33 percent for people older than 60.
“Constipation is defined as having three or fewer bowel movements a week,” says registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN. She adds that when someone who is constipated is able to go, typically the stool is hard, difficult to pass and very uncomfortable. “[Constipation] is the most common gastrointestinal complaint,” she says.
Bonci says that there are several potential reasons for constipation: side effect from certain medications, not drinking enough fluid, not eating enough fiber, being too sedentary, disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome–constipation, laxative abuse, traveling, pregnancy or aging. If it’s something you experience regularly, it’s worth it to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist who can help you pinpoint exactly what the problem may be so you can find a long-term solution together.
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There are also specific beverages and foods that help relieve constipation. One that often flies under the radar is prune juice. Before you dismiss it completely, do yourself — and your gut — a favor and get the facts on how it can help with constipation and the best ways to use it. (Spoiler: You don’t have to drink it straight!)
Is prune juice good for constipation?
Bonci says that there’s no question about whether or not prune juice can help with constipation; the answer is a resounding yes. “The fiber and sorbitol in prunes have a laxative effect, and studies have shown prunes to be as effective, if not more, than over-the-counter products,” she says.
Registered dietitian Shirin Hooshmand, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition at the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University, says that while prunes have been scientifically studied more than prune juice, it’s reasonable to speculate that prune juice has many of the same health benefits of prunes — including helping with constipation — just to a smaller degree.
“This topic is not as well-studied as one might think, but the limited available data do suggest a potential laxative benefit of both prunes and prune juice for constipation while causing limited negative effects such as loose stools in people without bowel health issues,” Dr. Hooshmand says. “In fact, softer stools are the typical side effect reported in healthy subjects, which would likely be viewed as a benefit.” It’s a noteworthy point: While constipation can be super uncomfortable, having to literally run to the bathroom isn’t any more pleasant.
While prune juice can be used any time of day to support digestive health, Bonci says that she especially thinks it’s a good idea to sip it before bed, which gives it a chance to work overnight. If you do decide to drink it during the day, she recommends trying it for the first time when you feel relaxed and there’s a bathroom nearby. “That way, you don’t need to worry or feel frantic about rushing to the toilet,” she says.
Convinced it’s worth a shot? Here are seven ways to give it a try.
7 ways to use prune juice for constipation
1. Drink it straight.
The most direct — and perhaps easiest — way to use prune juice to prevent or relieve constipation is to drink it as-is. The serving size is key here. If you’ve never sipped on prune juice with the intention of preventing or relieving constipation, both dietitians say it’s best to start with a small serving. “Start with four ounces and see how you feel,” Bonci says. “Then, if there’s a need, increase the amount gradually.”
Prune juice on its own is quite thick, which not everyone finds appealing. Bonci says that prune juices that are diluted may be more palatable, so you can look for them when shopping. She points out that many prune juices you can buy are in eight-ounce bottles, but, remember, a four-ounce serving is best to start, so drink only half. Some brands to look for are Lakewood Organic, Knudsen and Langers.
2. Warm it up.
Sipping a warm cup of prune juice just might become your pre-bedtime, constipation-preventing ritual. After all, as Bonci previously shared, consuming prune juice at night gives it time to work its gut-supporting magic while you sleep. Both dietitians say that warm prune juice has the same nutritional benefits as cold prune juice. Simply warm your four-ounce serving in the microwave for about two minutes, and you’re good to go.
3. Add it to a smoothie.
If you don’t like the taste of prune juice on its own (whether it’s cold or heated up), Dr. Hooshmand says that it can also be integrated into a smoothie with other frozen fruits. All fruits contain fiber, a key nutrient for keeping the digestive system running properly, so a smoothie spiked with prune juice is an extra-gut-healthy way to start the day. Dr. Hooshmand says that one way to integrate prune juice into smoothies is to freeze it in an ice-cube tray. That way, you have prune juice ice cubes you can just pop into your blender with your other ingredients. Some fiber-rich fruits that have been scientifically linked to helping with constipation include apples, avocados, bananas, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, figs, grapefruit and guava.
4. Mix it with other juices.
Another way to make prune juice more palatable is to combine it with a fruit juice you like. “I really like prune and orange juice together, or even prune and apple juice or cranberry juice,” Bonci says. She adds that something to be aware of is that both apple juice and prune juice contain sorbitol (a sugar alcohol), so the combination may be a bit too much for the gut to handle at first. Again, start small.
5. Incorporate it into dressings.
Only five percent of people in the U.S. get enough fiber each day. No wonder so many of us are backed up! Topping a salad with a dressing made with prune juice (a smart idea from Bonci) is a great way to support your gut in more ways than one. Whisk the juice with some oil and vinegar to create a quick dressing, or cook the juice for a few minutes to create a reduction before making the dressing. Some especially fiber-rich ingredients to integrate into your salad include beets, cucumber and celery — all of them natural diuretics — as well as bulgar, lentils, sauerkraut, black beans, tempeh and Swiss chard, which are great for better gut health.
6. Add it to your oatmeal.
Bonci says that adding prune juice to your bowl of oatmeal by combining it with other liquid cooking ingredients can be a delicious way to sweeten it up, similar to adding a handful of berries. This pairing also provides a one-two gut-healthy punch: Oatmeal provides a great source of fiber, helps keep blood sugar levels steady and delivers satiety so you stay full until lunch.
7. Use it as a marinade.
Remember how Bonci said that it can be beneficial to have your prune juice at night so it works while you sleep? That’s exactly why incorporating it into your dinner can help. One tasty route she recommends is to use it as part of a marinade for ribs or steak. Simply combine the prince juice with olive oil and herbs of your choice, then coat your meat and let it marinate overnight. (Be sure to plan ahead!) You could also add teriyaki sauce to the mix for a richer blend.
Are there any side effects or risks associated with prune juice?
Both dietitians say that the main risk or side effect to be aware of when consuming prune juice for constipation is that it might work a little too well — that’s why it’s best to keep the serving small to start. (Bonci says that prune juice is also safe for kids, but the serving size should be even smaller: just two ounces.)
Dr. Hooshmand says that it isn’t unusual to feel some slight discomfort when the prune juice starts to work. “One potential issue with using a liquid such as prune juice is that it may result in cramping when the pressure caused by the liquid reaches the ‘blockage’ in the colon,” she says. Bonci adds that since prune juice can have a laxative effect, it may not be the best idea to consume it before exercise.
If constipation is something you experience regularly, Dr. Hooshmand emphasizes that it’s best to see a doctor who can help you figure out exactly why this is something you’re dealing with on a regular basis and the best way to move forward.
To truly support your gut, it’s important to eat a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods and be mindful of your fiber intake. But for occasional constipation, prune juice can be a clutch solution.
Emily is a freelance writer and certified health coach who specializes in writing about mental health, fitness, healthy food, and social justice issues. Emily spent six years as an editor and writer at Well+Good, covering everything from food trends to serious issues like the opioid crisis in America and gun violence. She has also worked at Seventeen, Elle, and Twist magazines. She regularly writes for publications including Forbes, Parade, Shape, and The Huffington Post. Emily lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her cat Evie.