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Everything You Need to Know About Laxatives

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Today we’re tackling a subject that everyone should know about, but nobody talks about. We’re going to answer all your most important questions and provide essential information on the over-the-counter medicine equivalent of the ‘elephant in the room’. That’s right. We’re talking about laxatives. 

No, laxatives are not an everyday topic of conversation. But when over 42 million Americans have or will be affected by constipation, it’s time we start talking about solutions. If you’ve ever had difficult or infrequent bowel movements, chances are you’ve wondered about whether you should be taking a laxative. So here’s a comprehensive FAQ on everything you need to know about laxatives.

What kinds of laxatives are out there?

There are four main types of laxatives:

  • Bulk-forming laxatives work very much like dietary fiber to increase the water content and bulk of stool to help it move quickly through the colon – and out of your system;
  • Saline laxatives, also called osmotic laxatives, draws more fluid and water into the large intestine to soften stool and make it easier to pass;
  • Stimulant laxatives stimulate your bowel muscles causing them to contract and pass the stool through quickly;
  • Stool softeners, which do exactly what they sound like they do - they make dry, hard stool softer and easier to pass.

Each of these types of laxatives have different methods of ingestion, side effects, reactions, and cautions. While we’ll do our best to cover the basics here, you should always carefully read your medicine labels to know what to expect and check with your doctor just to be safe!

When should I take a laxative?

You may be constipated if you have difficult, strenuous bowel movements; if your stool is unusually hard and dry; or if you have less than three bowel movements per week. But just because you’re constipated doesn’t mean you need a laxative right away! First try to increase your water and fiber intake by drinking eight cups of water a day and increasing the number of fresh fruits and veggies you eat. If you still don’t notice a difference, a laxative may be your next best option.

What should I expect when I take a laxative?

It depends on the kind of laxative:

  • If you’re taking bulk-forming laxatives, you should drink plenty of water to avoid an increase in flatulence. You may still experience some bloating or gas. You won’t need to worry about running to the bathroom right away – when taken correctly, the laxative will stimulate your bowels naturally.
  • Osmotic or saline laxatives take about two or three days to start working, so you won’t notice a difference right away.
  • Stimulant laxatives start working within 6 to 12 hours, and shouldn’t need to be used more than once every few days because they are so effective so quickly. Because they cause your bowels to contract, you may want to make sure you are in a convenient location to use the restroom during the time frame they are likely to take effect.

For any laxatives and stool softeners, check the label and check with your doctor to see the other effects they may have upon you!

What are common side effects of laxatives?

The most common side effects include bloating, flatulence, abdominal cramps, nausea, and dehydration. It’s very important to drink plenty of water and electrolytes when taking laxatives to avoid serious dehydration! Prolonged use of laxatives can lead to more significant side effects like diarrhea, intestinal blockage, and imbalances due to the complications laxatives can cause regarding the absorption of various vitamins.

Are there safe, natural laxative options?

Yes! Supplementing your diet with certain foods can do the trick, like fiber-rich leafy greens or probiotic-filled fermented foods. And there is a natural stimulant laxative that has been used for centuries to treat constipation called senna.  Senna is extracted from the Senna alexandrina plant. It is available over-the-counter and is safe for adults and children over 3 years of age.

As always, check with your doctor before making big choices about new medicines, including laxatives. Knowing all the facts about different laxative options can aid you in having an informed conversation about what laxatives and laxative brands may be best for you.

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