Negative Effects of Laxatives for Constipation

Negative Effects of Laxatives for Constipation

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Laxatives are a group of commonly used medications for relieving constipation and making it easier to have a bowel movement. 

There are many different types of laxatives, each one with a unique mechanism of action. Some work by increasing faecal mass to stimulate bowel contractions. Others work by softening the stool, making it easier to pass.

Despite being great for getting rid of constipation, laxatives can have negative side effects. In many cases, these side effects only appear with excessive use of laxatives, but sensitive individuals might experience adverse reactions to normal or recommended doses of laxatives.

In this article, I’m going to cover what laxatives are, how they work, and their potential side effects in more detail. I’ll also give my top tips for relieving constipation naturally.

What Are Laxatives?

Laxatives are a group of medications that affect the gastrointestinal tract. They are used to treat acute and chronic constipation. You don’t need a prescription from your GP to obtain laxatives. You can buy them over the counter at pharmacies or even purchase them at most supermarkets.

Laxatives are a great remedy if you’ve tried various lifestyle changes and dietary adjustments to resolve your constipation. They’re also ideal in the long term if you have a digestive disorder where constipation is a common symptom, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis (collectively known as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)).

Laxative use may also be recommended prior to a gastrointestinal tract procedure, such as a colonoscopy, to remove the contents of the bowels beforehand and provide a clear view for the surgeons.

How Do They Work?

Although laxatives work in various ways, they all have the same end result. Ultimately, they help you go to the toilet and have a bowel movement. 

There are four common types of laxatives, including:

  • Bulk laxatives (e.g.- Fybogel) - this type of laxative works by bulking up the stool to stimulate contractions of the smooth muscle of your bowel (a process known as peristalsis). These contractions help to push the stool out of your bowels and into the toilet!
  • Osmotic laxatives (e.g.- Lactulose) - as the name suggests, osmotic laxatives use the movement of water to help you have a bowel movement. They contain salt to increase water retention inside the colon to keep the stool soft and easy to pass.
  • Softening laxatives (e.g.- Docusate) - softening laxatives work in a similar way to osmotic laxatives by increasing the volume of water that remains in the colon during digestion. The stool absorbs this water and softens, enabling it to move more easily through your lower digestive tract and preventing constipation.
  • Stimulant laxatives (e.g.- Senna) - this type of laxative stimulates the colon to contract and increases gut motility to treat constipation.

What Are the Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Laxative Use?

As effective as laxatives are for relieving constipation, they do have some side effects that are important to be aware of when you’re taking this type of medication regularly. Laxatives can lead to both short-term and long-term complications, and I’ve covered these below.

Short-term complications associated with laxative use

Temporary use of laxatives can lead to the following complications (the key word being ‘can’, as laxative use doesn’t always cause complications!):

  • Dehydration - laxatives pull water out of the body and into the lumen of the colon. You then lose this water when you have a bowel movement, meaning you’re at risk of dehydration if you don’t replace this lost water. Dehydration can lead to thirst, fatigue, muscle weakness, and confusion if severe.
  • Electrolyte imbalances - as laxatives cause you to have more bowel movements, they also increase the amount of water you lose from your digestive tract. With water loss comes electrolyte loss, including sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Imbalances in these electrolytes can lead to fatigue, muscle weakness, confusion, and heartbeat irregularities.
  • Digestive symptoms - laxative use commonly causes digestive symptoms like bloating, abdominal discomfort, and even abdominal pains. These symptoms are often only temporary, and not everybody experiences digestive symptoms when they take laxatives.

Long-term impacts of taking laxatives

There is the potential for long-term complications when you take laxatives over a long period of time. However, the risk of long-term issues is much smaller than your chance of experiencing short-term adverse effects when taking any type of laxative. The long-term complications include:

  • Ongoing constipation – using laxatives for a long period of time can lead you to become chronically constipated, mostly due to the smooth muscle in your bowel becoming dependent on the medication and weakening over time.
  • Dependency – as I just mentioned, excessive laxative use can lead to dependency, and you may end up struggling to go to the toilet without taking any medications.
  • Malabsorption – the risk of malabsorption or poor nutrient absorption is more common with stimulant laxatives as they cause food to move more quickly through the lower digestive tract, leaving less time for nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream. This could eventually lead to nutrient deficiencies in the long term.
  • Colonic inflammation – long-term use of laxatives can damage the intestinal mucosa (the cells lining the intestines), causing inflammation and irritation. Although unlikely to be the sole cause of cancer, laxative use may contribute to the development of inflammatory bowel disease and even colorectal cancer by increasing inflammation.

How Can I Relieve Constipation Naturally?

If you’re not keen on using laxatives and want to avoid the short-term and long-term side effects that I mentioned above, you’ll be glad to hear that you can relieve constipation in the long term without a single laxative in sight.

Below, I’ve covered some effective diet and lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of constipation and resolve it if and when it develops. 

Eat more probiotic foods

Probiotic-rich foods include yoghurt, kefir, tempeh, tofu, sauerkraut, and miso. These foods contain high amounts of beneficial bacteria, including Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and Enterococcus species. 

Probiotic bacteria reside in your gut naturally, but you can increase your levels of these bacteria by consuming the above foods. Doing so can improve your metabolism and nutrition absorption and promote optimal gut health. In turn, probiotics can lower your risk of constipation or help to relieve constipation if you’re blocked up.

If none of the probiotic-rich foods I’ve mentioned take your fancy, you can take a probiotic supplement instead. We have a tried and tested supplement at Wild Dose called A Dose For Bloating that contains two billion probiotic bacteria, seven digestive enzymes, and seven plant extracts. 

Together, these ingredients promote optimal gut function and relieve bloating, gas, and constipation. Just a couple of weeks of A Dose For Bloating is enough to start benefitting your digestive system and relieving your symptoms.

Eat prebiotic fibres

You’re probably already eating a lot of prebiotic fibres without realising it, especially if you have a relatively healthy diet. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that are abundant in whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.

The probiotic bacteria that reside in your gut feed on prebiotic fibres, enabling them to grow, thrive, and function efficiently. Therefore, consuming lots of prebiotic fibres can help prevent gut dysbiosis and promote optimal gut health. A healthy gut means you’re less likely to experience bloating, gas, and constipation, and it means you won’t need to reach for laxative supplements to go to the toilet.

Drink enough fluids

Staying hydrated is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to avoid constipation and the need for laxatives. Keeping a filled bottle of water by your side throughout the day and night enables you to take regular sips of water to stay nice and hydrated. 

When you’re hydrated, you’ll experience fewer digestive symptoms like bloating and constipation. You will also feel more alert and able to focus on tasks throughout the day. Remember that staying hydrated isn’t just important for your digestion. It’s important for your overall health and well-being!

Go for a walk

Exercise is a great way to get things moving through your lower digestive tract and into the toilet! It can be especially helpful if you’re on holiday, as exercise is free and accessible no matter where you go. The physical movement associated with exercise can stimulate peristalsis and push food out of your body.

You don’t need to do anything too vigorous to experience these benefits. Even a gentle walk can be enough to encourage a bowel movement, relieve constipation, and prevent you from needing to take any laxative medications in the short term or long term.

Take your dog out for a walk around the park if you have one, grab a friend and go for a long hike, or take yourself on a solo walk on your lunch break at work. Find what works best for you when it comes to incorporating more exercise into your daily routine to alleviate constipation naturally.

Spend time in nature

Stress is a common cause of constipation. Modern-day life is full of various stressors, and escaping the hustle and bustle of your home or avoiding your incoming work emails for a while can do wonders for your mind and body.

Spending time in nature enables you to stay away from your screens and calm your mind. You can walk through a peaceful natural trail and sit down in a large open park to breathe fresh air and feel the sunlight on your skin. 

The relaxing surroundings will enable you to wind down and reduce your psychological stress, which may promote better digestive health. As a result, you might find that just a few hours in nature enables you to go to the toilet successfully. In the long term, making more of an effort to get outdoors and surround yourself in nature can improve toilet regularity and get rid of constipation naturally.