What are laxatives?

Your gut is a complex and delicate system that is sensitive to its environment. Just like any other functioning machine, it requires maintenance in order to run smoothly. Your digestive tract is the site of ingestion, mixing, absorption and excretion for everything and anything that you feed into your body. What you put in your mouth has such an important effect in the functioning of the entire system from start to finish.

Taking care of your gut will avoid unwanted side effects like bloating, cramps, indigestion and diarrhea as well as improving your overall health. One of the most common issues that you are bound to face in your lifetime is constipation.

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Urgh, constipation!

Constipation is more than just frustrating, it is also uncomfortable and sometimes painful. Constipation appears to be inevitable due to its abundant number of causes. But fortunately, modern medicine has bestowed you with the power to solve your constipation problems with laxatives. But is this actually a good thing?

Laxatives come in all different forms. There are tablets, capsules, powders, chewables, liquids, wafers, candies and caramels; the list goes on. Laxatives are ubiquitous in the United States and a standard commodity in the American household. With so many people taking them I have to ask, do laxatives have harmful side effects in the long term? Could they actually be good for you?

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First it is important to understand the many different laxatives and how they work in the body.

Let me start by saying that normal bowel movements range from three times per week to three times per day. You should be aware of what is normal for you. If you are passing bowel movements less frequently than usual, it might be in your best interest to begin taking a laxative (always check with your physician first). But as I mentioned before there are different kinds of laxatives with different uses and effects.

Get to know the different kinds to get a better understanding of what you may need.

Bulk forming laxatives

Bulk forming laxatives are those that absorb water in the intestines and swell, forming a soft, bulky mass. This stimulates the gut to contract and move the stool with ease. Some side effects of this type of laxative include bloating and cramping or increased constipation if you do not drink enough water.

Stool softeners

Stool softeners do the opposite of bulk forming laxatives. These laxatives don’t stimulate a bowel movement however they reduce the strain of a bowel movement by adding water to the stool.

Stool softeners are effective in preventing strain that comes from constipation but they are not very good at treating an existing case. Over time, with prolonged use of a stool softener, your body could begin to have an electrolyte imbalance which can cause many issues.

Osmotic laxatives

Osmotic laxatives do exactly what it sounds like, they draw water in from surrounding tissues by osmosis into the large intestine. Water in the stool makes it softer and easier to pass. The issue with osmotic laxatives is that it can cause excessive thirst or dehydration. It is important to drink lots of fluids on an osmotic laxative.

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Stimulant laxatives

Stimulant laxatives work by triggering contraction of intestinal muscles to pass stool. Although these laxatives are effective, they should be used with caution because they work quicker and more powerfully than other laxatives. Discontinue if you experience rectal irritation or cramping.

The Complications

As mentioned before, persistent use of stool softeners can lead to an electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes are a broad term for sodium, potassium, chloride, calcium and magnesium in the body. Electrolytes have a number of responsibilities related to nerve function, osmotic pressure and muscle contractions. An imbalance of these electrolytes could cause confusion, weakness, abnormal heart rhythms and even seizures.

Continuous use of laxatives may also weaken your bones. Laxatives can interfere with calcium and vitamin D absorption making bone softening more plausible. Reduce your use of laxatives to avoid early onset of osteoporosis and fractures.

Long term use of stimulant laxatives damage nerve cells in the colon, decreasing its ability to contract on its own. This is called laxative dependency and is a common issue among those who abuse laxatives for weight loss. Not to mention that laxatives can damage the epithelial cells around the rectum causing hemorrhoids.

Don’t forget that dehydration is a common effect of laxatives as well. It is important to stay hydrated while on these medications to prevent further complications.

How else can I beat constipation?

If you decide to ditch your laxative, there are a number of ways you can improve your diet to help with constipation. Start by increasing your daily fluid intake; water will help move things along.

Try to add more fiber to your diet such as whole grains, wheat bran, fresh fruits and vegetables. Lastly, start to exercise or increase your exercise regimen. Strengthening your muscles will help push food along and keep your body on track.

Read more from Bonnie Giller on her Expert Profile.

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