Are you using laxatives but feel you would like to ‘go natural’? Are you struggling with constipation and considering laxative use but are not sure? Feeling bunged up is so unpleasant and it’s tempting to just reach for the nearest most effective product, but weighing up the pros and cons of laxative versus natural remedies is important.
The problems with laxative use.
In general it can be said that laxatives can have a time and place short term, and if used sensibly can be helpful. However, long term use of them is best avoided if possible as they can have detrimental side effects.
One situation where laxatives may actually be needed is after certain operations where becoming constipated could lead to other problems. In these cases doctors tend to prescribe them to patients to avoid other complications. See this blog on constipation after surgery. Also when needing them is a one off situation, it can be useful to take them. Officially however, it’s recommended to not take laxatives for more than 1 week.
However, the worrying issue is that laxatives are often used very regularly by some people with chronic constipation and therefore the laxative use become daily and long term. Of perhaps even more concern is that teenagers with eating disorders are now becoming hooked on these as a way of trying to lose weight. There has recently been some growing concern that young girls in particular are able to obtain laxatives easily from supermarkets and are using more than is recommended for months or years. Some of these teenagers are not only getting dangerously thin but are also causing irreversible damage to their digestive system which in later years can cause real issues with constipation.
Feeling bunged up for days is quite ‘up there’ on the scale of discomfort and unpleasantness. It can lead to pain, wind, bloating, nausea and a feeling of becoming toxic and ‘heady’. It is natural to want to reach for the laxatives, however again, few people realise that they are indeed quite a strong medication and may not know the rules of safe use, and if used regularly can in fact exacerbate the situation and contribute to the likelihood of getting constipated.
The possible side effects of improper and not recommended use of laxatives can be severe stomach cramps, nausea, diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, fainting due to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance which can cause a loss of calcium, potassium and sodium. It can therefore lead to muscle fatigue, mental changes, cramping and irregular heartbeat. A very concerning side effect of consistent use of laxatives as a method for dieting is the damage it can cause to the gastrointestinal tract, which can be permanent. Chronic use of laxatives can lead to a loss in the proper functioning of the tract. The body becomes habituated to the laxative doses. Once laxative use is halted, the intestines can slow down and lose their ability to remove food from the body. This is often referred to as a ‘lazy bowel’. This can lead to severe chronic constipation. Also, the nerve endings which surround the large intestines are changed by chronic laxative use, causing them to no longer respond to stimulation. All in all this creates a cycle of requiring larger doses of laxatives to create a bowel movement.
The benefits of natural remedies
So yes, where laxatives are not going to be taken just for a short length of time and as a one off use it would be best to find natural alternatives. And thankfully there are many.
But firstly what is a natural remedy? A natural remedy can be a herb, spice, food, bacteria, or even something physical (such as osteopathy) or method of application (nutritional therapy, naturopathy, herbalism) that is not classified as a prescription drug or a medicine. Some people describe this as an alternative medicine. But essentially it is the use of something that is found naturally rather than something that is chemical. It may a good method of regaining your health balance, or something you use alongside medication. The benefits of natural remedies over medication is that they are less likely to cause side effects of dependancy although ideally once rebalanced these are no longer required either.
So back to constipation
- One very useful alternative is taking a probiotic with a particular strain of bacteria called Bifidobacterum lactis BB-12®, which is the most highly researched strain of Bifidobacteria and has been shown to prevent and alleviate constipation1,2,3. It has various mechanisms of action which you can read about here. This strain can be found in the product Bifidobacteria & fibre which, as the name suggests also contains fibre which is therefore beneficial for constipation. This is a product that does not induce dependency or reduce bowel function as it is based on bacteria that is naturally found in the bowel. This can be a very good alternative is you are used to laxatives although it may be necessary to take 3 sachets for the first day and then gradually reduce this to one a day. Drinking plenty of water and following other natural health tips at the same time is also important.
- Another great alternative to laxatives is exercise. Even light exercise such as fast walking stimulates the bowel and helps with bowel movements. This is so effective that regular runners and cyclists for example always ensure they have been to the toilet before they exercise to avoid being caught short!! Exercise is important as it gets the blood pumping around your body and to your gastrointestinal tract. This stimulates muscle contraction and release of enzymes which helps towards going to the toilet.
- Others that are also worth a mention and maybe not so well known are blackstrap molasses. Mix 1-2 teaspoons of blackstrap molasses in a cup of lukewarm water and drink this mixture. It is rich in certain vitamins and minerals, especially magnesium, and therefore, gives relief from constipation. Epsom salts are also a helpful natural remedy for constipation. Add 2 tsp of Epsom salt to 1 cup of fruit juice or water stir well and drink it. Take another dose, if there is no sign of bowel movement within 4 hours. Both of these contain magnesium which is a muscle relaxant and therefore helps relax the bowel and relieve constipation.
Also, it is worth mentioning that as young people with eating disorders is a growing issue where excessive laxative use is concerned, that helping with the education around which foods are not going to increase weight might be considered. This is a very sensitive and complicated area and therefore education and emotional support are key here to help avoid laxative overuse.
There are many other natural alternatives to laxatives which can be found on this website.
Matsumoto M, Imai T, Hironaka T, Kume H, Watanabe M and Benno Y. Effect of Yoghurt with Bifidobacterium lactis LKM512 in Improving Fecal Microflora and Defecation of Healthy Volunteers. Intestine Microbiology Magazine 2001;14:97-102.
Murakami T, Miyahara H, Yukisato S, Nakamura R, Kanno H, Kotakemori M, Kamei T and Kobayashi O. Safety and effect of yoghurt containing Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 on improvement of defecation and fecal microflora in healthy volunteers. Food, Health and Nutrition Research (Journal of Nutritional Food) 2006;9(1):1-12.
Uchida K, Akashi K, Kusunoki I, Ikeda T, Katano N, Motoshima H and Benno Y. Effect of fermented milk containing Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 on stool frequency, defecation, fecal microbiota and safety of excessive ingestion in healthy female students -2nd report. Food Health and Nutrition Research (Journal of Nutritional Food) 2005;8(1):39-51