Going number two probably isn’t something you think much about, but when not going becomes physically uncomfortable, it’s at the forefront of your thoughts. When you’re faced with occasional constipation and need relief fast, you probably head to the pharmacy. Unfortunately, many over-the-counter laxatives come with a heaping helping of adverse side effects. Not to mention that the sheer abundance of laxative options can feel overwhelming. Here, we'll shed light on the subject and compare the various types of laxatives and their effects.
Types of Instant Laxatives
Laxatives are over-the-counter products you take to stimulate a bowel movement. The majority work by drawing moisture to your colon, bulking stool up, or by forcing the muscles lining the intestines to contract and push their contents along for elimination. There are several types of laxatives, and they differ in how they're taken, how they work, and how quickly they work.
An enema is a liquid solution that is pushed into the rectum through the anus using a fluid-filled bag or a rectal bulb. Enemas are the fastest acting solution for a backed up bowel. Although they can be administered at home, they’re typically used in clinical settings, such as before or after surgery.
Fastest Acting Enema Solutions
- Sodium phosphate: 2 to 5 minutes
- Mineral oil: 2 to 5 minutes
- Docusate: 2 to 15 minutes
- Bisacodyl: 15 to 60 minutes
Rectal suppositories, also called laxative suppositories, are pill-shaped and inserted into the rectum where they dissolve and take effect. They don’t work as quickly as enemas, but typically stimulate a bowel movement in about 30 minutes.
Fastest Acting Suppositories
- Carbon dioxide: 5 to 30 minutes
- Bisacodyl: 15 to 60 minutes
- Glycerin: 15 to 60 minutes
- Senna: 30 to 60 minutes
Oral laxatives in the form of liquids, pills, and powders are found on grocery store and pharmacy shelves. In general, they're taken at night to produce a bowel movement in the morning. This type of laxative falls into one of five categories, and each works differently.
Osmotic laxatives draw water into the colon to produce softer stool that’s easier to pass. There are several over-the-counter varieties available, including milk of magnesia and magnesium citrate. Common side effects of osmotic laxatives include nausea, bloating, cramping, gas, and diarrhea. Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance (particularly low potassium levels) may result from abusing these kinds of laxatives.
Stool softeners, also known as emollient laxatives, trap moisture in the stool to soften it and make it easier to pass. Stool softeners are one of the slowest-acting (12 to 72 hours) forms of over-the-counter constipation relief, with generally mild action. Stool softeners received a poor ranking for effectiveness in one comprehensive review of different types of laxatives.
Bulking laxatives increase the mass of fecal waste to encourage a bowel movement. They’re one of the most gentle types of laxative but they’re not suitable for everyone. The side effects of bulking laxatives include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and skin rash.
Bulk-forming laxatives may contain ingredients like psyllium husk or methylcellulose, which are potential allergens. Taking psyllium by mouth could also present a choking hazard as it swells in the mouth and throat. This is why bulking laxatives must be consumed with plenty of water.
Stimulant laxatives don’t alter or add anything to your stool. Instead, they cause the muscles of your intestines to contract, moving stool toward the rectum. This kind of laxative is a bit rougher on your system because they stimulate contractions of the intestinal muscles. Long-term use of stimulant laxatives can cause dependence. Senna, a type of stimulant laxative, may cause stomach pains, faintness, cramping, nausea, and brown urine.
One common type of stimulant laxative is "whole leaf" or “outer leaf” aloe vera (sometimes called aloe latex). It sounds like a natural solution, but outer leaf aloe produces unpleasant cramping and loose, watery stools. The outer part of the leaf contains a compound called aloin which can be harsh on the digestive tract, causing severe cramping and diarrhea, and in chronic use, may even cause intestinal or kidney damage. On the other hand, inner leaf aloe has no latex or aloin and is much milder. If you use an aloe supplement, select one made only from the inner leaf.
Lubricant laxatives coat the colon in an oily film, allowing stool to pass more easily. They work more slowly than other types and may require a few hours, or even overnight, to produce the desired effect.
Mineral oil is the most commonly used lubricant laxative. The body does not digest mineral oil, so it retains its greasy consistency throughout the digestive process. Long-term use of mineral oil can lead to side effects like fecal seepage and anal incontinence, as well as vitamin deficiencies.
Possible Side Effects of Relying on Laxatives
Though laxatives usually get the job done, relief often comes at a cost. Many people become so reliant on laxatives that they begin to overuse them, some without even realizing it. Overuse can damage your pancreas and the lining of your colon. Laxative abuse can even lead to dependence, which means the inability to have a bowel movement without them. Here are some of the negative side effects that come from overusing laxatives:
- Laxative dependency
- Organ damage
- Electrolyte imbalance
- Severe dehydration
- Increased risk of kidney stones
- Weak nails
Eat More Food That Is Rich in Fiber
If constipation is a common occurrence, reassess the foods you eat rather than reaching for the medicine cabinet. Laxatives only treat the symptoms of a larger issue. It's very likely that your difficulty in the bathroom is due to a lack of fiber. In fact, fewer than 3 percent of Americans get enough fiber on a daily basis. Men should get 38 grams of fiber daily, while women need about 25 grams. If you’re eating the standard American diet, there's a good chance that you’re in that 97 percent of people who fall short. If you could use more fiber, many of the best laxative foods are a great source. Check out my article about the best sources of fiber to increase your intake.
A Better Approach
Even if you do follow a healthy eating plan, a weekend of indulgence or even a new medication can cause occasional constipation. To naturally and gently resolve occasional constipation without using laxatives, try Oxy-Powder®. This gentle colon cleanser is safe, effective, and doesn’t cause nausea or the sort of embarrassing emergencies that send you scrambling for the nearest toilet. Regularly cleaning your colon with a gentle, oxygen-based colon cleanser like Oxy-Powder can keep your bowel movements regular and satisfying.
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- Senna. MedlinePlus Drug Information. Updated 15 Feb 2018. Accessed 10 May 2019.
- Aloe Vera.National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. Updated. 19 Dec 2018. Accessed 10 May 2019.
- Clemens, R, et al. Filling America’s fiber intake gap: summary of a roundtable to probe realistic solutions with a focus on grain-based foods. J Nutr. 2012;142(7):1390S–1401S.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.