When Should You Take Laxatives?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Constipation is a topic not many talk about, but if you ever have been constipated, you know how uncomfortable it is. Since everyone is different, it may be hard to tell when what you are experiencing is constipation. Perhaps it’s just that your routine is messed up and you haven’t been moving your bowels as often as you were before. There are many home remedies for constipation, but many people reach for a laxative as a quick fix. Learn more about when to use laxatives, their side effects, and if laxatives can be used for weight loss.

Do You Really Need a Laxative?

Most people have occasional times when they feel constipated. Sometimes it occurs out of the blue or the result of changes in your routine. Other causes include medications and a blockage or narrowing in your bowel. Sometimes, there is no obvious reason. For people who move their bowels on a regular schedule, not having a bowel movement every day or two can be concerning. If this is your situation, consider trying some alternatives before reaching for a laxative. These include:

  • Increasing the fiber in your diet
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Limiting processed foods
  • Exercising

Changing any or all of these may help relieve occasional constipation. If you still don’t get relief, you may need to try a mild over-the-counter laxative. If you don’t have any health conditions that contradict taking a laxative, talk to your pharmacist to see what might work best for you.

Natural Laxatives

Before you buy a laxative, check to see what might be in your pantry first. Some foods are natural laxatives and can stimulate your bowels, solving your problem.

  • Prunes pack a lot of fiber, but they also have fermentable sugars (fructans and sorbitol), which can have a bonus laxative effect for some people.
  • Yogurt has probiotics that can improve gut health. At the same time, the probiotics may make your stools softer and easier to pass.
  • Apples are a healthy snack that can also help ease digestion, allowing stool to move more smoothly through your bowels. Most of the fiber is in the skin, so it’s best to include that part in your snack.
  • Licorice root tea has been used for generations to help ease digestive woes. Licorice candy rarely has enough actual licorice in it though, so choose carefully and read labels. Too much black licorice can cause high blood pressure and low potassium in your blood. These can have serious outcomes.

These snacks, in addition to increasing your intake of fluid and fiber, and exercising may be enough to get things moving again. If not, it may be time to move to over-the-counter laxatives.

Over-the-Counter Laxatives

There are several types of over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives and they work in different ways. If you’re not sure which one you should try, ask your doctor or pharmacist, who can guide you to ones that will not interfere with medications you are already taking. Even if you aren’t taking medications, the pharmacist can recommend the right product for you. It is important to note that laxatives are not something you should use continuously without your doctor’s approval. It is easy to become dependent on them and you may experience more problems later with worsening constipation.

OTC laxatives include:

  • Stool softeners: Brand names include Colace and Surfak. These are not technically laxatives. Instead, they soften stool by adding water drawn from the bowel walls. Softer bowels are easier to pass through your bowels so you don’t have to strain.
  • Osmotics: Brand names include Milk of Magnesia and Kristalose (lactulose). Osmotics keep stool from losing fluid, so it stays soft.
  • Fiber supplements: Brand names include Metamucil, FiberCon, and Citrucel. Fiber supplements add bulk to your stool, so it can pass through the bowels.
  • Stimulants: Brand names include Dulcolax and Senokot. These products don’t affect the stools themselves but the intestines. They cause the bowel walls to contract and push the stool forward.
  • Suppositories and enemas: These are inserted directly into your rectum to stimulate your bowel into moving the stool forward and you can evacuate it.

Laxatives Side Effect

As with any medication or supplement, there are potential side effects or adverse events related to laxatives. If you experience side effects, speak with your doctor or pharmacist about laxative alternatives. Here are some of the most common laxative side effects:

  • Stool softeners can cause an imbalance of electrolytes (sodium, calcium, potassium and more). Serious imbalances can cause dizziness, cramping, an irregular heartbeat, and mental confusion.
  • Osmotics can cause gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea.
  • Fiber supplements can cause symptoms similar to osmotics, plus more constipation if not taken as directed, with enough water.
  • Suppositories and enemas can cause irritation around the rectum, as well as cramps and diarrhea.

Should You Use Laxatives to Lose Weight?

If you have heard that laxatives can help you lose weight, you’ve heard a myth that can be quite dangerous. Laxatives do not promote weight loss. While you may see a lower weight on a scale after the laxative has worked, the weight is only lower for that time because your body has just eliminated a significant amount of water, not body fat. This will just return as your body replenishes its liquid balance.

Laxatives should be treated like any other drug or medication—taken for a specific problem (constipation) at the recommended doses for that product. People who overuse laxatives or who use them to lose weight may become seriously ill.

Laxatives can mess up your electrolyte imbalance. If this becomes severe, it can be life threatening. Laxatives can also cause dehydration as many pull water from your bowels, to add them to the stool. Other health issues related to taking laxatives to lose weight include:

  • Tremors
  • Changes in vision, such as blurring

Overuse of laxatives can also cause a “lazy bowel.” This means the colon is no longer reacting to the laxatives and has stretched to accommodate larger sizes of stool. This in turn can cause more bowel problems like infection and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Contact your healthcare provider if you have recurring constipation that does not respond to natural laxatives. Your provider may want to examine you in person and run tests to rule out serious causes of constipation, such as bowel obstruction.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 10
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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