Laxatives have long been used for quick and easy relief from constipation. While they may seem like a quick fix, if not used properly, or if used too often, laxatives can become addictive and make your struggle with constipation more difficult in the long run.
There are different types of laxatives, and they all function in slightly different ways, each with varying degrees of success. In order to safely use laxatives for relief, it is important to understand how they work.
Bulk-forming laxatives the most commonly used, and the kind most people turn as a first step in treating constipation. Available in pill or powder form, this type of laxative is very high in fiber and often includes ingredients such as psyllium and polycarbophil.
Bulk-formers work by absorbing liquid and swelling in the digestive system. It is this absorption and swelling that assists the body in forming a soft, lubricated, bulkier stool. The presence of this softer, bulkier stool stimulates the bowel to contract, and pass the stool more easily, helping to relieve constipation.
- Safe for long term use
- Effective in treating constipation associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulosis and colostomies
- Helps to increase fiber in someone with a low fiber diet
Many see positive results from the use of bulk-forming laxatives within 12 hours of taking the product. However, since every person’s body is different, it can take as long as two to three days to get results.
When taking any type of bulk-forming laxative, it is important to follow these precautions to maximize results:
- Drink one half your body weight in ounces of pure water on a daily basis to help prevent against intestinal blockage.
- Beware of abdominal bloating, discomfort and flatulence. If this occurs, lower your fiber intake, then gradually increase it so that your combined dietary fiber and fiber supplementation is in the range of 25-30 grams daily.
- Read all ingredients in the product to be aware of artificial sweeteners and coloring.
Stool softeners help by adding moisture to the stool, allowing for easier passage through the bowel. Stool softeners come in liquid or pill form, and usually contain docusate. They do not actually increase or stimulate bowel movements.
Stool softeners are recommended for preventing constipation and for relieving the straining associated with constipation, but not for relieving constipation.
- Safe for elderly and pregnant patients
- Effective for relieving pain associated with anal fissures and/or hemorrhoids
You can expect to see results from a stool softener one or two days after initial use. However, every individual is different so it can take from three to five days for results.
While stool softeners are generally safe and effective, be aware that there can be some interaction with other over-the-counter medications.
- Not recommended for use in conjunction with mineral oil or other lubricant laxatives.
- Stool softeners can increase the toxicity and absorption of ingested lubricant laxatives.
- Once absorbed into the body, they can cause an increase in inflammation of the liver, spleen, and lymph glands.
Lubricant laxatives, such as mineral oil, work in a similar fashion as stool softeners. They are used to help prevent constipation as well as relieve the straining associated with constipation, but do not provide immediate relief from constipation.
Lubricant laxatives are taken orally, usually in liquid form, and contain the lubricant liquid petrolatum. This lubricant coats the stool with a waterproof film, allowing it to retain moisture. The added moisture keeps the stool soft, and facilitates easier passage through the rectum.
- Can be used after abdominal, rectal, or pelvic surgery, or after childbirth
- Can be used in patients with high blood pressure
- Effective for relieving pain associated with anal fissures and/or hemorrhoids
You can expect to see results from taking a lubricant laxative anywhere between six to eight hours after taking the product.
While lubricants are commonly used, there are situations in which they should not be taken.
- Patients taking any blood thinning medication should not use lubricants as they can decrease the absorption of vitamin K. This can thin the blood even more, and work as a catalyst to a dangerous bleeding situation.
- Pregnant women should not take lubricants as they can inhibit the absorption of vitamins by the fetus.
- If aspirated into the lungs, mineral oil can cause pneumonia. Mineral oil should only be used for short periods of time as significant absorption into the body can occur.
All Natural Stimulant Laxatives
Perhaps some of the most widely self-prescribed and well-known types of laxatives are stimulant laxatives. They are known for their ability to provide quick relief for those suffering from constipation. They come in pill or liquid form, and the active ingredients can include bisacodyl as well as two all-natural options, cascara and senna.
Stimulant laxatives work by increasing the muscle contractions in the intestinal wall. These contractions are responsible for moving waste along to the rectum for evacuation. Bisacodyl and cascara work by directly stimulating the muscles in the intestinal walls to contract.
Cascara has also been known to expel parasites through the wavelike action it produces in the lower intestines, and is highly recommended for parasite removal. Ingredients like senna are converted, by bacteria, into active compounds that increase contractions.
- Quick relief from constipation
- If used correctly can help strengthen colon muscles used for elimination.
You can expect to see results from taking a stimulant laxative anywhere from six to 24 hours after taking the product.
- Chemical dependency – When the product is taken daily or frequently over a long period of time, your body will need to continue using it in order to have a normal bowel movement. In order to avoid developing a “laxative habit,” this type of laxative is best used on a seasonal or on-again off-again basis with dietary modifications to improve regularity.
Saline laxatives are used to rapidly empty the lower bowel. It is taken orally and generally used in preparation for surgery.
The active ingredients in saline laxatives are salts, which attract water into the intestine. Increasing water helps soften stool, and increase intestinal contractions. Saline laxatives can be used on a short-term basis for constipation relief, but should not be used over the long-term.
- Complete cleansing in preparation for surgery
- Short-term relief of constipation
Results from saline laxatives can be expected a half-hour to three hours after consumption.
Saline laxatives contain sodium that can be absorbed into the body and this can be detrimental to certain individuals.
If the following conditions apply to you, do not take this type of laxative:
- Impaired kidney function
- Congestive heart failure
- High blood pressure
Enemas and Suppositories
Enemas and suppositories are generally used to clean out the lower portion of the intestines, known as the sigmoid colon. They are administered rectally, and contain fluid and cream that work to stimulate contractions.
Both enemas and suppositories can be used for occasional relief of constipation, but they are not recommended for long-term use.
- Quick relief from constipation and impaction
- Cleanses the lower colon
- Good for cleansing in preparation for digestive procedures and surgery
Once used, results can be expected within an hour.
While suppositories are generally safe and effective, there are pre-cautions that need to be taken when considering an enema.
- Enemas that contain soapsuds should be avoided as they can cause irritation in the rectum. Enemas can also cause a disruption to electrolyte and fluid levels in the blood, so they should not be used in chronic situations.
If you feel as though you need an immediate solution to your constipation problem, then using a laxative may be useful. However, it is best to work on a combination of dietary and fluid modifications, increased exercise, and the implementation of seasonal colon cleansing or colonic hydrotherapy, as opposed to getting hooked on something that can negatively affect your long-term ability to move your bowels.
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