September 20, 2014

View as List Stay Regular: 10 Laxative FAQs

  • Stay Regular: 10 Laxative FAQs

    The inability to have regular bowel movements is often thought of as an elderly concern—grandfather with his daily bowl of prunes. But marketers today are pitching laxatives to a younger audience. Some offer to “beautify your insides” with a product packaged in yellow or pink and such flavors as pink lemonade. Others promise a “purified” colon and weight loss. But when do you really need to use a laxative?

  • 1

    Do you need to cleanse your colon?

    illustration of the insides of a healthy intestine

    No. The colon is very efficient at keeping itself clean. You need no laxatives, enemas or “colonic irrigation” to do this. (Colonic irrigation is an out-and-out scam, and can be dangerous, too.) Don’t believe any ad that promises to “remove toxins” or make your intestines beautiful. If you eat an unhealthy diet, taking a laxative won’t make up for it.

  • 2

    Laxatives: Effective weight loss aid?

    woman wearing white holding an orange drink

    Not really. Bulk laxatives (which are basically fiber supplements) might help with weight control by making you feel a little fuller, so you may consume fewer calories afterwards. But claims that they will quickly take off lots of pounds are greatly exaggerated. Many dietary supplements and “teas” that promise weight loss contain herbal laxatives, which are not safe or effective.

  • 3

    Should I worry about constipation?

    Colorful rope tied in knots

    There’s no strict definition of constipation. Some people have a bowel movement daily or twice daily, others only three times weekly, with no problems. Fewer than three times a week is usually regarded as constipation. If you have chronic problems with bowel movements, if your stool is always hard and causes you to strain, or if you experience bloating, cramping or bleeding, you should see your doctor.

  • 4

    What causes constipation?

    roll of toilet paper on blue background

    The chief causes are a low-fiber diet, lack of fluids and being sedentary. Many medications, including antacids, and dietary supplements such as iron can cause it. Travel, emotional stress, depression and lack of access to toilet facilities (on a long bus trip, for example) can bring on constipation.

  • 5

    What’s the best way to stay regular?

    Healthy foods in white bowls broccoli strawberries spinach more

    Healthy habits promote regularity. Don’t rely on laxatives. Increase your fluid intake and eat more fiber—found in fruits, whole grains, beans and vegetables. Fiber adds bulk to the stool, absorbs water and stimulates the colonic contractions that produce the urge to defecate. Increase your fiber intake gradually to avoid gas and bloating. Regular exercise—such as daily walking—will also help.

  • 6

    What kind of laxative is best?

    tea, juice, pills

    Use occasionally. Bulk-forming laxatives, which contain psyllium or other fiber (such as Metamucil, Fibercon, Citrucel and generics), are effective, gentle-acting and less likely to produce side effects than stimulants. Some also have sorbitol or other sugar alcohols, which have laxative properties. Lubricating laxatives (such as mineral oil and glycerin) make stool oily and thus easier to pass. Some stool softeners also work this way. Osmotic laxatives (such as milk of magnesia) contain magnesium salts or sodium biphosphate. They are fast-acting. Follow directions, and don’t take large doses. 

  • 7

    What about stimulant laxatives?

    colorful pills in blister packs

    Stimulant laxatives (such as Ex-Lax, Senokot and Dulcolax) cause fluid secretion in the colon and irritate the lining of the colon to produce contractions. They may contain herbal ingredients such as senna, cascara sagrada and other harsh stimulants. Many people reach for these first because they act forcefully and quickly. If you try them, follow directions carefully and use them only for a day or two. They may cause cramping and diarrhea. Castor oil is a strong stimulant laxative and should be used only on medical advice.

  • 8

    Can laxatives harm my colon?

    Senior man talking to a pharmacist

    It has long been thought that stimulant laxatives could harm the colon or cause dependency. But a study published in 2005 in the American Journal of Gastroenterology found that stimulants did not harm the colon when used at recommended doses. The researchers did not find evidence for laxative dependency or rebound constipation. However, laxative dependency has been little studied.

  • 9

    What about yogurt?

    yogurt with fruit and granola

    Several yogurt brands, notably Dannon’s Activia, now claim to promote regularity. These yogurts contain live bacteria that, according to some research, may shorten transit time through the intestine or have other effects that may help prevent constipation. Still, how much of a difference this would make is questionable. Yogurt with live cultures is also promoted for controlling diarrhea.

  • 10

    What about prunes?

    Bowl of prunes

    An excellent choice. They are high in fiber, but that does not account fully for their laxative effects, because prune juice, which has little fiber, also works. Both the fruit and juice naturally contain high amounts of sorbitol and other substances that promote bowel movements. But their laxative effect is not completely understood.