- What are laxatives?
- What are laxatives used for?
- What are the different types of laxatives?
- When should you take a laxative?
- How do you take a laxative safely?
- How often should you take laxatives?
- What are the potential side effects of laxatives?
- Are there alternatives to laxatives?
- Who shouldn’t take laxatives?
- Do laxatives help with weight loss?
Laxatives are substances that increase bowel movements. They are used to treat constipation if more conservative methods such as increasing the amount of fibre in the diet, drinking more fluid, or doing exercise haven’t helped.
Laxatives are mostly used to treat constipation when other treatment options have failed. In addition, some laxatives are used to empty the colon in preparation for some intestinal and rectal examinations.
Laxatives can come in the form of capsules or tablets, sachets of powder, liquids, suppositories, or gels that are applied directly to the anus. They are available over-the-counter and as prescription medication. The main types of laxatives used in the UK are as follows:
- Bulk-forming laxatives: these act like fibre by increasing the bulk of the patient’s faeces and helping them to retain water, making it easier for the bowels to push them out.
- Osmotic laxatives: these draw water from other parts of the body into the bowel to rehydrate the stool, making it easier to pass.
- Stool-softening laxatives: these increase the amount of fluid in the bowels, softening the stool.
- Stimulant laxatives: these stimulate the nerves in the lining of the large intestine, speeding up the patient’s bowel movements.
Some laxatives are designed to be taken at specific times of day, such as first thing in the morning or before going to sleep. They should be taken on an empty stomach, so before meals.
Normally it is advised to start by taking the bulk-forming laxatives but if the stool remains hard, osmotic laxatives may be used instead of or with them. If it still remains difficult to pass, stimulant laxatives may be used in combination with bulk-forming laxatives.
Drink plenty of water if you are taking either the bulk-forming or osmotic laxatives, to avoid dehydration. Follow directions on the packet and never take more than the recommended dose. Speak to your GP or a pharmacist if you have any doubts about which laxative is most suitable for you.
Laxatives should be taken infrequently and only for a week at a time. Daily usage of laxatives can cause damage. Certain people may require a regular prescription of laxatives from their GP or gastroenterologist.
Although mild, potential side effects of laxatives include:
- intestinal obstruction and loss of bowel function
Lifestyle changes such as drinking more water, exercising more, and eating a high-fibre diet can help to regulate bowel movements. Laxatives should only be used if lifestyle changes aren’t helping.
Foods that are considered to be natural laxatives include:
- seeds such as chia and flax
- castor or olive oil
- leafy, green vegetables
If the patient suffers from a gastrointestinal condition, diabetes, or food intolerance, is currently taking other medication, or is pregnant or breastfeeding, they should consult their doctor or pharmacist before taking laxatives. Always check with a doctor before giving children laxatives, as it is not recommended.
Laxatives do not promote weight loss as they don’t stop your body from absorbing the calories from the food you consume.