Types of Laxatives for Constipation

Whether you suffer from chronic constipation or just find yourself temporarily bound up, sometimes you need a laxative to get things moving. There are so many different kinds of laxatives available it can be a little overwhelming when trying to pick the right one. Before making your choice, it is important to know about the safety and effectiveness of each type. 

It's also important to try to determine what condition is causing your constipation. For chronic conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or Crohn's disease, some kinds of laxatives can actually make symptoms worse. For occasional constipation, most over-the-counter remedies will do the trick. But for more serious medical conditions, you may want to consult with your healthcare provider before using a laxative.

Fiber Supplements (Bulk Laxatives)

Man reading instructions on pill bottle

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Fiber supplements soften the stool and stimulate a bowel movement. There are three basic types, each of which uses a different ingredient: psyllium, calcium polycarbophil, or methylcellulose. As with all laxatives, it is essential to drink plenty of fluids. And not all fiber supplements are the same. Here's a quick overview:

  • Psyllium breaks down in the gut and becomes a food source for the good gut bacteria. It's used for a range of conditions, including IBS, and diverticulosis (note: it's not recommended for diverticulitis). One big side effect: psyllium can cause intestinal gas. 
  • Calcium polycarbophil absorbs water in the digestive tract, making stools softer and bulkier. One drawback: it needs to be spaced out with other medications you're taking to ensure it's absorbed properly. 
  • Methylcellulose, like polycarbophil, is plant-based and absorbs water in the gut. It's much less likely to cause intestinal gas than other fiber laxatives.

Osmotic Laxatives

Osmotic laxatives work by increasing the amount of fluid secreted within the intestines, resulting in softer and easier-to-pass stools. The three major osmotic laxatives are Miralax, Lactulose, and Milk of Magnesia.

  • Miralax, the brand name for polyethylene glycol PEG, acts similarly to fiber laxatives, as it draws water into the stool making it softer and easier to pass. It also stimulates more frequent bowel movements. Miralax has been found to cause less gas and bloating than other osmotic laxatives. 
  • Lactulose increases the speed of intestinal contractions, stimulating bowel movements. 
  • Milk of Magnesia is no longer widely recommended because of the potential complications it may cause for patients with heart or kidney disease. There are safer and more effective options available.

Herbal Stimulant Laxatives

There are many different herbs have a reputation for having laxative effects. Aloe latex, cascara sagrada, frangula, rhubarb, and senna are all examples of herbal stimulant laxatives.

Herbal laxatives contain anthranoids, chemical compounds that stimulate the intestines, improving motility in the gut (in other words, keeping things moving along more quickly).

These products are not recommended for long-term use and can have side effects. Consult a medical professional before using herbal remedies. 

Stimulant Laxatives

Stimulant laxatives work by speeding up the movement of intestinal muscles, thus inducing a bowel movement. Many of the well-known products sold in your drug store are stimulant laxatives, including Carters Little Pills, ExLax, and Dulcolax.

A stimulant laxative is generally recommended as a short-term treatment for constipation. Check with your healthcare provider before using one of these products, since they can interact with other over-the-counter and prescription medications. 

Stool Softeners

Stool softeners do just what the name suggests: soften the stool so it's easier to pass. They perform many of the same functions of a laxative, but technically aren't laxatives because they don't stimulate the gut. Most stool softeners contain a medication called docusate. Brand names include Colace, Doxinate, and Fleet Sof-Lax.

Stool softeners are generally recommended for short-term use, but if your healthcare provider gives you the green light, you can use them for longer periods.

There are times when a stool softener is a better option than a laxative to relieve constipation, especially if you have hemorrhoids or are pregnant (or both). You should consult your healthcare provider to determine which one is the best choice to help you get things moving again. 

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