Laxatives have been used for quick and effective relief from constipation for decades. They may seem like a quick solution, but if not used properly or used too often, laxative use can be addictive and make your struggles with constipation more difficult.
There are different types of laxatives for constipation, and they all work in different ways, each with varying degrees of success. To be safe when using laxatives, it is important to know how they work.
This article will cover the different types of laxatives, their benefits and drawbacks with any common side effects.
The 7 main types of laxatives are:
- Bulk-Forming Laxatives
- Stool Softeners
- Lubricant Laxatives
- Osmotic Laxatives
- Stimulant Laxatives
- Saline Laxatives
- Enemas and Suppositories
1. Bulk-Forming Laxatives
Most people use bulk-forming laxatives as their first step in treating constipation.
Available in gummy, pill, or powder form, this type of laxative stool softener is very high in fiber and may include ingredients such as psyllium and polycarbophil.
Bulk-forming laxatives work by absorbing liquids and swelling in the digestive tract. The absorption and swelling assists the body to form a softer, more lubricated, bulkier stool.
The presence of this soft, bulky stool helps stimulate the bowel to contract, which makes it easier for the bowel to pass stools.
Bulk-Forming Laxatives Benefits
Many people report positive results from using bulk-forming laxatives after taking them within 12 hours. However, since everyone’s body is unique, it may take anywhere from two to three days for results to appear.
These are some of the key benefits of bulk-forming laxatives:
- Safe for long term use.
- Effective for treating constipation that’s associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diverticulosis, and colostomies. Learn more at: What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
- It helps to increase fiber in someone eating a low fiber diet, which is common with a standard American diet.
It is important to follow these guidelines when taking any type of bulk forming laxative to maximize results:
- Drink one half your body weight in ounces of water per day to help prevent intestinal blockages or hard and dry stool.
- Keep an eye out for abdominal bloating, discomfort and flatulence. If any occur, lower the amount of fiber intake, then gradually increase it so that your combined dietary fiber and fiber supplementation is in the range of 25-30 grams daily.
- Read the ingredients in products to be aware of artificial sweeteners and coloring, which may cause adverse reactions in some individuals.
Bulk-Forming Laxative Examples
Look for products with psyllium and polycarbophil.
FiberCon Fiber Therapy Coated Caplets, Safe, Simple & Comfortable Insoluble Fiber for Bowel Irregularity, Comfortable Constipation Relief with No Gas or Bloating, 140 Caplets
Metamucil Premium Blend Fiber 180 Servings Psyllium Husk Fiber Powder Supplement Sugar Free with Stevia Natural Orange Flavor 6 Month Supply (OLD)
2. Stool Softeners
Stool softeners add moisture to the stool, which allows for easier passage through the bowels.Stool softeners are available in liquid or tablet form, and usually contain sodium docusate.
They don’t actually increase the frequency of bowel movements or stimulate them.
Stool softeners are recommended for preventing constipation and relieving the straining as a result of constipation, however they don’t actually relieve infrequent stool.
Stool Softener Benefits
- Safe for both elderly and pregnant patients.
- Effective for treating pain associated with anal fissures and/or hemorrhoids.
You can expect to begin seeing results from a stool softener within one or two days of using it. However, everyone is different so it may take from 3-5 days for results.
Stool softeners are generally safe, but they may interact with certain medications. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking any stool softeners.
Stool Softener Drawbacks
- Do not take this product if you’re using mineral oil or other lubricant laxative products.
- Stool softener laxatives can increase the toxicity level and absorption of ingested lubricant laxatives.
Stool Softener Examples
Look for products with sodium docusate.
3. Lubricant Laxatives
Lubricant laxatives, such as mineral oil, work similarly to stool softeners. They’re used to help prevent constipation as well as relieve the strain associated with constipation, though they don’t provide immediate relief from constipation.
Lubricant laxatives are usually taken orally in liquid form, and contain the lubricant liquid petrolatum. This lubricant coats your stool with a waterproof film so that it retains moisture.
Expect to see results anywhere between 6-8 hours after taking a lubricant laxative.
The added moisture helps keep the stool soft and makes it easier to pass through the rectum.
Lubricant Laxative Benefits
- Often used after abdominal, rectal, or pelvic surgery, or after childbirth.
- Effective at relieving pain from anal fissures and/or hemorrhoids.
Lubricants are commonly used, but there are some situations in which they shouldn’t be taken.
- Patients taking any blood thinner medications should avoid using lubricants because they can decrease the absorption rate of vitamin K. That can lead to thinning the blood even more, and be a catalyst to a dangerous bleeding situation.
- Lubricants shouldn’t be used during pregnancy because they can inhibit the absorption by the fetus.
- Mineral oil can cause pneumonia if aspirated into the lungs.
- Mineral oil and other lubricant laxatives should only be used for short periods of time as significant absorption into the body can occur.
Lubricant Laxative Examples
Look for products with mineral oil or petrolatum.
4. Osmotic Laxatives
Osmotic laxatives are similar to bulk forming agents. Osmotics will usually take 1 to 3 days to start working.
They act like a sponge, absorbing water and swelling up inside the colon. The resulting water content causes the stool to become softer and easier to pass.
The active ingredient in osmotic laxatives is polyethylene glycol.
Osmotic Laxative Benefits
- Relieving painful symptoms caused by constipation
- Helping ease bloating and gas
- Reducing cramping and straining
- They’re typically used when patients have difficulty passing stools due to an obstruction.
Osmotic Laxative Drawbacks
- May cause diarrhea if too much is consumed.
- Can cause dehydration if used excessively.
- May cause electrolyte imbalances if used long term.
Osmotic Laxative Examples
Look for products containing sorbitol or polyethylene glycol.
5. All Natural Stimulant Laxatives
Stimulant laxatives are probably the most widely known type of laxative. They are known for providing fast relief for people who suffer from constipation.
They come in pill and liquid form, and the ingredients can include bisacodyl as well as two natural options, cascara and senna.
Stimulant laxative work by increasing the number of muscle contractions in the intestinal wall. These contractions are the reason that waste moves from the colon to the rectum for elimination.
Cascara and bisacodyl work by stimulating the muscles directly in the intestinal walls to contract.
You can expect to experience results from taking a stimulatory laxative anywhere from 6 to 24 hours after taking the laxative.
Ingredients like senna are converted by the bacteria, into active compounds that will increase the number of contractions.
Stimulant Laxatives Benefits
- A quick way to relieve constipation
- Can help strengthen the colon muscles that are used for elimination.
Stimulant Laxatives Drawbacks
- Chemical Dependency – If you take the product regularly for a longer period of time, your digestive system will need to keep using the product in order to have a regular bowel movement. To avoid developing a “laxative habit,” this type of laxative should be used infrequently, with dietary changes to improve regularity.
- Abdominal Cramping and Pain – these laxatives can cause muscles to contract within the gut wall which may cause abdominal cramps and pain.
- Urgency – There can also be urgency once you feel a bowel movement coming. That can make the timing of when to take a stimulant laxative a little challenging.
Stimulant Laxative Examples
Look for products with bisacodyl, cascara, and senna.
6. Saline Laxatives
Saline laxatives help to quickly empty the lower bowel. Saline laxatives usually take effect within 30 minutes to 3 hours after ingestion.
It is usually taken orally before bowel surgery or a colonoscopy/colonoscopic procedure.
Saline laxatives use salt as the active ingredient, which attracts water into the intestine. This makes the stool softer and increases the intestinal contractions.
Short-term use of saline laxatives may help relieve constipation, but they should not be used over long periods of time.
Saline Laxatives Benefits:
- Complete colon cleansing before having surgery or colonoscopy
- Short-term and fast constipation relief
Saline Laxatives Drawbacks:
Saline laxatives contain sodium that is absorbed into the body and intestines, which can be detrimental to certain individuals.
If the following conditions apply to you, do not take saline laxatives:
- Impaired kidney function
- Congestive heart failure
- High blood pressure
Saline Laxative Examples
Look for saline laxative products that are taken orally and not as an enema. They can include magnesium hydroxide as an ingredient.
7. Enemas and Suppositories
Enemas and Suppositories are generally used to clear out the lower part of the intestine, called the sigmoid colon.
They are in fluid or cream form that stimulates contractions and are administered rectally. Results can usually be expected within an hour after using them.
Both enemas (colonic irrigation) and suppositories (rectal enema) can be used occasionally to relieve constipation, but they’re not recommended for long-term use.
- Related article: Suppository for Constipation
Enemas and Suppositories Benefits
- Quick relief for constipation and impaction.
- Cleanses the lower colon portion
- Good for cleansing before digestive procedures and surgeries
Enemas and suppositories are generally safe and highly effective, but there are some precautions that need to be considered before using them.
Enemas and Suppositories Drawbacks
- Soap sud enema solutions should be avoided because they can cause irritation in your rectum. Enemas like those from Fleet can disrupt electrolyte and fluid levels in the blood, so it’s best not to use them in chronic constipation situations in people with chronic kidney disease (What is Kidney Disease?).
- Bisacodyl and glycerin suppositories may irritate the rectum and lead to pain and discomfort.
- Inserting anything into the rectum carries a risk of trauma/injury to the anal canal and rectum.
Enema and Suppository Examples
Fleet products are the most popular brand when it comes to enemas and suppositories.
They also make enemas that are safe for children. I’ve needed to use the Fleet Pedia-Lax Enemas before on my children and they work very well. It’s best not to use it regularly, but occasionally is fine as-needed.
Types of Laxatives Final Thoughts
If you feel as if you need an immediate solution for your constipation problem, using laxatives may be useful. However, it is important to combine dietary and fluid changes, increased exercise, and an increase in fiber to help move your bowel movements.
Learn more in these related articles:
Types of Laxatives FAQs
What is the most effective type of laxative?
The most effective type of laxative is one that works by stimulating the intestinal muscles and increasing peristalsis. This will push food through the small intestine more quickly and allow waste to pass through the large intestine. For chronic constipation situations and consistent, long-term relief, fiber is the most effective and what doctors recommend. Consuming fiber helps bulk up stool and makes it easier to pass. Fiber supplements such as psyllium husk powder and Metamucil are often prescribed for this purpose.
What are the different kinds of laxatives?
There are 7 main types of laxatives: Bulk-Forming Laxatives, Stool Softeners, Lubricant Laxatives, Osmotic Laxatives, Stimulant Laxatives, Saline Laxatives, and Enemas and Suppositories. They each have their benefits and drawbacks, so it’s important to understand which ones would be most beneficial for you.
What is the fastest laxative?
The fastest acting laxatives are stimulants, such as senna or cascara sagrada. These stimulate the intestines and encourage movement. The downside is that these can cause cramping, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal symptoms if used for long periods of time or multiple uses in short periods.
Which laxatives are safe for kids?
What laxative does not cause cramping?
Why can’t I poop even after laxatives?
If you can’t poop even after taking laxatives, then you may have a medical condition called slow transit constipation (STC). STC occurs when there is a delay in moving waste from the colon into the rectum. This causes hard stools to form in the colon instead of soft, normal stools. If you experience frequent episodes of constipation with no improvement after trying to change your diet, fluids, and activity levels, talk to your doctor about this possibility.
What is the best laxative to clean you out?
The best laxative to clean you out is ones that contain fiber. Fiber is essential for keeping you regular and helping you feel full longer. It is the most natural way to clean your body out regularly, because it adds bulk to your stool and moves it along faster. When you use a fiber supplement like Metamucil, it will help make your bowel movements softer and more comfortable.