We’ve all suffered from constipation at some point and it’s a common digestive complaint. The best way to ease this is to drink more fluids and eat fibre-rich food. Laxatives are an easy way out but do you know how they actually work?
Laxatives are great for relief and results can be felt within 24 hours. But, as with any medication, it’s important to be informed. Some laxatives are labelled ‘natural’ and are plant-based, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe especially if you don’t use them properly.
Here are the different types of laxatives you should know about:
1. Bulk forming
Also known as a fibre supplement, these laxatives are the safest and gentlest, and the only type that may be used daily. Your body doesn’t digest these laxatives but the fibre absorbs and retains fluid to form a soft, bulky stool. This stimulates the intestinal muscles and makes them contract naturally (peristalsis) causing digestive contents to move leading to easier bowel movements. They don’t cause cramps or diarrhoea and adults are advised to to start taking these first if they have constipation.
Examples: Inulin, psyllium husk, slippery elm, fenugreek, chia seeds, flaxseed.
Take note: Although these are safe for long-term use and well tolerated, they can sometimes cause bloating, intestinal gas, cramping, and increased constipation, especially if you don’t consume enough water. It’s not suitable for those who have had colon surgery, colon obstruction or colon disease. Avoid taking medication with a bulk laxative, as it can reduce the absorption of certain medicines.
2. Stimulant / purgative
This works by stimulating and focing your interstinal muscles to contract. These laxatives are readily available over-the-counter and widely used due to the fact that they work effectively within 6-12 hours. Unfortunately, they are also the harshest type and unsuitable for long term use as they can cause cramping and diarrhoea.
Examples: Senna, rhubarb, castor oil, aloe resin, Cascara sagrada and Yellow Dock
Take note: These should be taken for constipation requiring instant relief and never for more than 2-3 days, as they can cause laxative dependency, cramping and diarrhoea. Always check the ingredients and opt for a natural fibre product if you can.
3. Bowel lubricant
A lubricant laxative coats the colon and stool so it remains soft as it goes through the intestine. These take 8-24 hours to work and can be used long-term in moderation.
Examples: Olive / coconut / flaxseed oil, which can easily incorporated into your diet in smoothies, salad dressing and baked goods.
Take note: Not all oils are are of a good quality and you need to be aware of the refined variety. The best types are cold-pressed and unrefined.
These work by drawing water into the bowel, which in turn softens stools. Their efficacy lasts between three hours to three days depending on an individual’s colon transit time (the amount of time a substance takes to move through the colon), and what kind of osmotic laxative used.
Examples: Lactulose, sorbitol (sugar alcohol found naturally in fruits), glycerol, saline, vitamin C and magnesium.
Take note: Osmotic laxatives can cause electrolyte imbalances ast they draw out nutrients, leading to dehydration. They should be used under medical supervision and aren’t suitable for long-term use - except vitamin C and magnesium. If you are using them, remember to drink lots of water and stay hydrated.
Can laxatives be used for weight loss?
This is an important topic as laxative abuse is rife under the misguidance that this is a quick way of shedding kilos. This is a myth as laxatives act on the large intestine long after food (calories) have already been absorbed by the small intestine.
The aim of a laxative is to encourage you to go to the toilet and what you excrete contains minimal food, fat or calories. Approximately 75% of faeces is made of water with the remainder comprising indigestible fibre and other waste from the colon, i.e. has no impact on the fat content in your body at all. We all want a quick fix for losing weight but products that promise to help get rid of of the kilos so easily are mainly gimmicks.
You may think that the more you go to the toilet, the weight is magically being flushed out but that’s just temporary water loss. Stop using the product and guess what? The weight comes straight back on. The worst part is that you can actually become dependent on laxatives, which leads to long-lasting health problems.
If you’re constipated, go for natural remedies and if you want to lose weight, change your lifestyle, eat well and exercise- that’s the only option and it’s one that leads to a lifetime of good health.
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