Almost everyone in their life has gone through a phase where it becomes difficult to have proper bowel movements. For some people this condition is permanent and they have to opt for prescription laxatives to solve it. Our lifestyle has made constipation a common problem. But those heavily relying on prescription laxatives to cure it may end up doing some permanent damage. Not only are laxatives habit forming, but the person can also end up having a laxative dependence to have regular bowel movements. Good water intake, leafy green vegetables, apple, berries, banana, prunes, kefir, yogurt, coconut oil, castor oil, olive oil, etc. are some of the best natural laxatives that help us void the stools promptly without any difficulty.
Along with drinking sufficient water, you can also consume beverages such as ginger tea, rooibos tea, peppermint tea, coffee and coconut water. Coconut water is also a great nutritional resource which can help alleviate constipation naturally.
Let us understand the complications of overuse of prescription laxatives in detail and know various natural laxatives.
What is constipation?
Constipation is a condition wherein an individual has hard feces which are difficult to expel. It generally occurs when too much water is absorbed from food, making the feces dry.
Constipation can be acute, due to certain medications or consumption of milk products. Chronic constipation occurs when there is less intake of water, less physical activity (1). Aging is also related to constipation as the bowel movements get slow and sluggish.
Pregnancy brings about hormonal changes that can increase the chances of constipation. Also, the enlarging uterus may compress the intestine, making it difficult for passage of stools (2).
Complications of constipation
Constipation is uncomfortable and can cause irritability. However, chronic constipation can develop into more serious conditions, including:
- Anal fissure, or a small tear around the anus
- Rectal bleeding after straining to pass stools
- Hemorrhoids, or swollen, inflamed veins in the rectum
- Fecal impaction, in which dried stools collect in the anus and rectum causing an obstruction (3).
What is laxative?
Laxatives are the products which tend to increase the stool motility, bulk, and its frequency. It is prescribed to provide relief from constipation. Laxatives come in various forms like pills, capsules, and liquids, suppositories and enemas.
Do you know that there is a difference between stool softener and laxative? The stool softener is a type of laxative (Emollient Laxative). The other way around is not true. So, all stool softeners are laxatives but not all laxatives are stool softeners. In fact, there are several types of laxative. Each type of laxative has specific benefits and possible side effects.
Emollient Laxatives or stool softeners
These laxatives contain a surfactant that helps to soften the stool and are often called as stool softeners. Emollient laxatives take few days to be useful and complete its action to soften the stools.
They are prescribed to individuals with hemorrhoids, those recovering from surgery, women who have just given birth.
These laxatives contain active ingredients as methylcellulose, psyllium, and calcium polycarbophil. They form a gel in the stool which in turn helps it hold more water. The density of stool increases and thus intestine pass it easily and quickly.
They have little risk of side effects and can help people with chronic constipation. Also, they take longer than other laxatives to work. But if you are planning to use them for a longer period then you should consult your doctor.
They contain mineral oil which makes the stool pass through without any obstruction. The oil prevents the stool from drying out. Lubricant laxatives should be used as a short-term cure for constipation as the mineral oil can absorb fat-soluble vitamins from the intestine. Lubricant laxatives also decrease certain prescription drugs from being completely absorbed into the body.
Osmotic and Hyperosmolar Laxatives
These laxatives work on the principle of osmosis; they draw fluids from the surrounding tissue into the intestine. The increase in the water content in intestines results in softer stools which are easier to pass.
While on osmotic and hyperosmolar laxatives it is crucial to increase the daily water intake as it can cause gas and flatulence.
Guanylate Cyclase-C Agonist Laxatives
This type laxative changes stool consistency by increasing the amount of water into the GI tract and increases gastrointestinal movement. It is a prescription laxative for those suffering from chronic idiopathic constipation.
These laxatives should be taken only on prescription and are not recommended for patients younger than six. They also carry a risk of diarrhea and dependence.
These laxatives are quick acting and provide steady results hours into consumption (4). They stimulate the lining of the intestine which accelerates the movement of stool through the colon.
Stimulant laxatives also soften the stool. This type of laxative may weaken the body’s natural ability to defecate and cause laxative dependency while increasing the risk of diarrhea.
What are the side effects?
Bloating, gas, cramping, stomach upset, abdominal pain, flatulence are the common side effects of laxatives. Some people abuse laxatives to lose weight, and when a person takes higher or more frequent doses of laxatives, it can result in severe complications.
- Chronic constipation, due to damage of cilia of the intestine
- Laxative dependence for even regular bowel movements
- Severe dehydration and electrolyte and mineral imbalances
- Internal organ damage
- Increased colon cancer risk
Over-the-counter laxatives can be a quick fix in alleviating constipation. But using these prescription stool softeners more often can cause the change in acid-base balances and electrolyte disturbances. In the long run, there could be potentially serious consequences such as heart and kidney damage (5).
Natural laxatives are the best method to treat constipation as it does not cause dependence and is healthy for the cilia of the intestine.
Natural laxatives that can substitute prescription laxatives
Water intake does not only keep you hydrated but it also helps in alleviating constipation. Water helps in making the stool consistency ideal for passing out with ease (6). Also, when you consume healthy fibers or natural laxatives, then water can amplify their effect.
Different studies (7) have shown that daily sufficient water intake can help in dealing with constipation.
Flaxseeds are one of the best natural laxatives for treating constipation (8). They contain both insoluble and soluble fiber which work in conjunction. Regular consumption of flax seeds prevents constipation and various other digestive issues.
They have also been effective in other digestive ailments like colitis, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. The fibers in flax seeds expand in the digestive system when they come in contact with fluids.
This increases the bulk of stools which ensure their smooth through the intestinal tract. Flaxseeds should always ground before consumption as our body does not digest the whole flax seeds. Consume a tablespoon of freshly ground flax seeds with lukewarm water empty stomach.
3. Chia Seeds
Just like Flaxseeds, Chia seeds are natural fiber which can act as one of the best natural laxatives. Chia seeds are high in soluble fiber which can pass through your gut or intestine undigested and thereby increasing your stool volume (9). Overall, they will help you maintain regularity.
4. Aloe Vera
Aloe Vera is one of the most popular medicinal plants and has excellent laxative properties (10). The Aloe Vera gel contains beneficial vitamins, minerals, amino acids, phytonutrients, enzymes and aloe latex.
Aloe latex is a powerful laxative and has also proven to be effective in treating IBS related constipation. Extract fresh Aloe Vera gel and add it to the blender you can also add a little bit of citric juice to the blender to mask the bitter taste. Consume this juice once daily till symptoms subside.
5. Ginger tea
Ginger is one of the best natural laxatives and is proven beneficial in treating various stomach ailments (11). Ginger works by relaxing the intestinal tract; It works as a mild appetite stimulant that aids in strengthening your stomach and promoting the digestion process and thereby, relieving constipation efficiently.
6. Rooibos Tea
Rooibos tea is rich in flavonoids, particularly quercetin. Quercetin helps to improve digestion and support the digestive system in multiple ways. It alleviates cramping, general stomach upset and indigestion, lower inflammation, and constipation.
7. Peppermint Tea
Peppermint tea is effective in treating nausea, stomach upset, and constipation. The active ingredient menthol in peppermint can help the muscles in the digestive tract relax, allowing smooth passage of the stools.
Sipping the peppermint tea before a meal will prepare the gastrointestinal tract and aid in the proper metabolism of food.
There several health benefits of coffee and one of them is that it can stimulate your colon muscles. Coffee promotes peristalsis, which is the coordinated contraction and relaxation of intestinal muscles that causes bowel movements.
Coffee helps in gastrin release (12). Gastrin is a hormone which is also released after you eat anything and helps in the secretion of gastric acid for breaking down the food in the stomach.
9. Peppermint Oil
Peppermint oil, a highly effective alternative to prescription laxatives, can reduce colon spasms as well as ease bloat and indigestion to relax the intestinal muscles (13).
It has potent antispasmodic properties which calm the stomach muscles and helps improve the flow of bile. This allows food to pass through the intestine more quickly. Peppermint oil is also used to treat constipation and bloating associated with IBS.
Mix two drops of essential peppermint oil with a teaspoon of warmed coconut or grapeseed oil. Massage it gently, directly onto the abdomen, massaging increases movement of the bowel while also relaxing the muscles.
10. Oilve oil
It is no more secret that olive oil is good for your health in many ways. Olive oil can also help you in efficient bowel cleansing. In a study (14), 4mL/day dose of olive oil to hemodialysis patients help them overcoming constipation.
It was as effective as mineral oil. Mineral oil provides a coating in the rectum and acts as a lubricant for the easier passage of stool (15). Although, mineral oil has its own side effects as such as lipid pneumonia, anal seepage, etc.
Therefore, if olive can match up to the effects of mineral oil then it can prove to be one of the best natural laxatives.
11. Castor oil
Castor oil has been in widespread use as a therapeutic drug for centuries. When you consume castor oil, it releases ricinoleic acid, which is hydroxylated fatty acid that has a laxative effect (16).
In one study, castor oil packs were administered in elderly. These packs decreased the symptoms of constipation by improving the feces consistency and decreasing the strain during defecation (17).
Probiotics are a rich source of good gut bacteria. Prescription laxatives destroy the natural habitat of the good bacteria (18). These bacteria help the proper processing of the food, which in turn helps adequate bowel movements. Include Kombucha, kefir, yogurt in your diet on a daily basis.
13. Lefay green vegetables
Green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, and collard greens have a high antioxidant content and provide a fair amount of fiber. They help in increasing the bulk of stools.
Leafy green vegetables are also a rich of magnesium, which helps in drawing more water into the intestines, thereby helping in passing the stool (19).
Prune is rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber. It also contains sorbitol, which absorbs water and acts as an osmotic laxative. Studies (20) have shown that prunes are best natural laxatives as they can increase the stool consistency and frequency.
Apple is high in fibers. It also provides a special type of soluble dietary fiber called pectin. Pectin helps to soften the stools and relieve constipation. One study (21) suggest that pectin speeds up colon transit time. It also has the probiotic effect on gut by increasing the population of good bacteria.
Blackberries are loaded with essential nutrients and fiber. Also, they have a special type of sugar called Xylitol. Xylitol has laxative effects and helps motility of stools.
Bananas have a thick consistency and are an excellent source of fiber, potassium, and vitamins. Ripe bananas increase the bulk of stools and alleviate constipation.
Coconut oil is one of the best natural laxatives that helps to relieve difficulty in passage of stools and infrequent bowel movements. It is rich in medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which provides constipation relief.
That’s because MCFAs provide quick energy for your intestinal cells that boost their metabolism and hence, stimulate your bowel movements. MCFAs also soften the stool too. Not only acute sufferers get to relieve their constipation efficiently, but chronic sufferers also get desired results.
However, do not over consume the oil otherwise it can loosen your bowels and cause diarrhea symptoms. Consume one teaspoon of coconut oil, or you can cook your food in coconut oil.
Coconut water is also a great alternative as it will provide necessary hydration which will prevent the feces from drying.
Final words on natural laxatives
In the majority of cases, acute constipation resolves itself without any treatment or risk to health. The treatment of recurring and chronic constipation require lifestyle changes such as doing more exercise, including more fiber and fibrous food in the diet.
Prescription laxatives will treat most cases of constipation but it can cause dependence. The best method is to use natural laxatives. Avoid processed food and sodas as they can dry the feces by making it difficult to pass.