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People are living longer across the globe. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 6 people will be 60 or older by 2030. With age comes wisdom, confidence and, sometimes, constipation—difficulty passing hard stools.
The colon ages right along with us, so a growing number of aging people may rely on a dose of laxative for a regular bowel movement, contributing to an uptick in use. Plus, more people are using over-the-counter laxatives than ever before regardless of age. Individuals are paying closer attention to gut function, and one risky misconception—taking laxatives to lose weight—is also leading to increased use.
Some drug-store laxative manufacturers are finding it difficult to keep up with rising demand, causing concerns about a looming laxative shortage. It’s important to understand how to properly use over-the-counter laxatives so these products can stay on the shelves longer for people truly in need.
Many types of over-the-counter laxatives offer a generally safe way to help relieve occasional constipation by making it easier to have a bowel movement (poop), including:
- Bulk forming (such as Citrucel® or Metamucil®): uses soluble fiber to make stool easier to pass.
- Emollient (such as Colace®): commonly known as a stool softener, uses water and fat to help pass stool.
- Lubricating (mineral oil): makes stool soft and slick.
- Osmotic (such as MiraLAX®): draws water from inside the body to soften stool.
- Stimulating (such as Dulcolax®): encourages the colon to move the bowels.
Consider these three facts about laxative use before you head to the store. If you’re worried about your bowel health, it’s best to talk with your doctor to make sure laxatives are the right answer.
1. Laxatives won’t help you lose weight.
If you weigh yourself before and after a laxative-induced bowel movement, you may see a lower number. That’s because water and waste have weight. The number on the scale will go up after you drink and eat as your body rehydrates and produces more stool.
Body mass sticks around regardless of bowel habits—only diet, exercise, and other healthy weight management strategies will produce meaningful weight loss. Plus, if you misuse laxatives or take too many you run the risk of serious dehydration and symptoms like stomach cramps, weakness, or headaches.
Don’t buy into the social media hype about drug store laxatives as weight loss aids. You’ll lose fluids and feces when you take some types, but you’ll never lose body fat by taking laxatives.
Related reading: Mindful Eating for Healthy Weight Loss.
2. Over-the-counter laxatives are a short-term treatment.
You don’t need to pass stool every day to be a healthy person. Everyone’s bowel habits are different. Don’t be quick to take a laxative if it might not be necessary. However, if you have fewer than three bowel movements in a week, you could be constipated and may benefit from a laxative treatment.
Look for other constipation symptoms to help you know for sure:
- Dry, hard stools
- Feeling as though there is more stool to pass
- Painful bowel movements or difficulty passing stool
A short-term laxative treatment is generally a safe option to soften stools to the point of passing and bring relief from constipation. Always drink plenty of water and follow the directions of your laxative brand.
It’s especially important to use senna laxatives appropriately as they have the potential to cause dependency, or even liver damage, if used long term. Some laxatives that have oral sodium phosphate could affect kidney function if misused.
It's a good idea to talk with your doctor about any worries when it comes to your regularity, whether you’d benefit from a short-term laxative, and the appropriate laxative type for your unique health needs.
Related reading: What Healthy Bowel Movements Look Like, and When to Call the Doctor.
3. A backed-up bowel doesn’t always need a laxative.
A laxative can get you through a tough bout of constipation now and then, but lifestyle changes could help you avoid a backed-up bowel altogether.
- Get moving to get moving. Sitting still for long periods of time can encourage constipation. Try incorporating exercise if you have a more sedentary lifestyle to get your bowels moving.
- Make dietary changes. Try working a variety of healthy, high-fiber foods into your diet such as:
- Leafy green veggies
- Seeds like chia, flax, and pumpkin
- Stay hydrated. Remember, 8-10 glasses of water a day keep your digestive system flush.
- Reflect on your stress level. Mental and emotional health can affect your gut. Do your best to manage stress and it may be easier to manage constipation, too.
Don’t hesitate to see your doctor.
It’s time to make an appointment with your doctor if you experience chronic constipation despite leading a healthy, active lifestyle. The gastroenterologists at MedStar Washington Hospital Center can help. If you notice serious gastrointestinal problems like bloody stool, constant stomach pain, or vomiting, see your healthcare provider right away.