What Is a Laxative and How Does It Work?


Slow digestion and constipation can be a true nightmare, and many people try various methods to fight it. This condition can often be treated by natural remedies alone or with some simple lifestyle changes. Unfortunately, however, sometimes natural approaches do not help, and this is when another constipation medication comes in handy.

However, it’s important to know what a laxative is, and which one to take for constipation, as there are different types on the market. Continue reading to learn more about constipation and laxatives, as well as other information regarding this matter.

What Is Constipation?

Every time you experience irregular bowel movement, it does not mean that you necessarily suffer from constipation. We are all different and each body works in its own special way. That is why in some cases it is especially difficult to establish whether the person in question is suffering from slow digestion, constipation, or something else…

However, you’re probably suffering from constipation if you’re experiencing the following symptoms:

  • You’ve not had a regular bowel movement at least three times this week;
  • your stools tend to be harder than usual;
  • you’re straining or in pain during a bowel movement;
  • once finished, you do not feel you’ve actually managed to relieve yourself completely.

If you’re wondering why you’re suffering from this problem, there are several possible answers:

  • insufficient fibre intake;
  • dehydration;
  • not being active enough or sitting/lying for long periods of time;
  • lifestyle or diet changes;
  • side effect of various medicine;
  • stress;
  • pregnancy.

Those are just a few possible reasons for constipation, and – once again – since everyone is unique, your reason for feeling bloated might be something completely different.

Foodstuffs rich in fiber – avocado, peas, fennel, spinach…

Before Trying Laxatives

In case of digestive problems, very often we immediately go to the pharmacy and load up with strong laxatives thinking they are the best solution against constipation. However, there are some less harsh methods that also help, such as natural laxatives and dietary adjustments. Our advice is to always start with the latter, and only after that resort to stronger remedies. Firstly, try to increase your daily intake of fibre.

Fibre is extremely important, as it travels through your intestines undigested and adds bulk to your stool, thereby encouraging more regular bowel movements. A diet rich in fibre can consequently increase the frequency of defecation and soften your stool.

In order to add bulk to your stool, it’s recommended to consume 25 grams of fibre per day for women and 38 grams for men. However, we recommend that you increase the fibre content in your diet gradually to avoid bloating.

If you’re looking for some simple ways of adding fibre to your diet, you could try the following:

  • chia seeds
  • legumes
  • berries
  • apples
  • prunes
  • oats
  • kiwi

Naturally, there are some foodstuffs that are notorious for causing constipation and they should be avoided in case you often suffer from digestive issues. This group includes processed food, too much meat, fried and very fatty food, caffeine, spicy food, and dairy products.

Secondly, try drinking a lot of water, as staying hydrated can help alleviate constipation by improving the consistency of your stool, making it easier to pass through your body. Additionally, Donat, a natural laxative, has been used to treat constipation for over 400 years with no side effects, and therefore represents an extremely effective treatment. Read more about how exactly it helps your body improve the digestion process, and thus stay healthy.

Also, don’t forget to exercise regularly because it will help your body in digestion and stimulate bowel movements. Physical activity is effective against constipation because it shortens the time needed for the food to travel through the bowels which limits the quantity of water that is being absorbed from the excrement into your body. Moreover, physical activity supports proper functioning of the immune system which is extremely important in the fight against winter colds and coronavirus.

As you can see, successful strategies for a natural fight against constipation have their roots in a healthy lifestyle. If you would like to give this way a try before reaching for laxatives, definitely read more about little tricks that will lead to great changes in your body in a natural way – both in the area of digestion and in the area of health and general wellbeing!

A young and fit man is doing stomach exercises on a soft floor mat at his home.

What Is a Laxative?

If the advice given above doesn’t help, you’re probably going to want to try something stronger, like laxatives.

Laxatives are basically substances that work toward loosening your stool or stimulation of a bowel movement in general. They can be very helpful if you’re dealing with constipation or related problems. Laxatives can either be taken orally or rectally, depending on their form.

There are different kinds of laxatives that can be distinguished by their effect, so the right one has to be carefully selected. So, which kinds of laxatives do we know and how do they work?

  • bulk-forming laxatives: like fibre, such laxatives travel through your body undigested and add bulk to your stool;
  • stool softeners: as the name suggests, they help soften your stool and therefore make it easier to pass through your body until it reaches the toilet;
  • lubricant laxatives: such laxatives again ensure softer stools that pass with more ease, as they actually keep the surface of your stool moist;
  • osmotic-type laxatives: with the help of osmotic laxatives, your colon can retain more water which then increases the frequency of bowel movements;
  • stimulant laxatives: a stimulant laxative can speed up the digestion and lead to a bowel movement;
  • saline laxatives: they work toward drawing water into the small intestine and again promoting bowel movements.

Such laxatives can be great in alleviating the symptoms of constipation, but never take them for too long or too often. In case you do not know what this means, talk to your doctor and get more information.

If you are in doubt about laxatives, you can also give a try to some other natural laxatives together with the above-mentioned tips on dietary fiber, drinking water and physical activity:

  • castor oil: castor oil is known as one of the best natural laxatives that releases ricinoleic acid which promotes normal bowel movements;
  • olive oil: another natural lubricant laxative that enables easier passage of the stool;
  • aloe vera: this treatment for constipation comes from the inner lining of the aloe vera leaves, stimulating the movement of your digestive tract;
  • magnesium citrate: as magnesium increases the amount of water in your intestinal tract, it can lead to a bowel movement.
A fresh leaf of aloe vera and a glass of aloe vera juice on a wooden board.

Which Laxative Should You Use?

If you’ve tried to be more active, drink more water and increase your fibre intake, or have already experimented with some natural laxatives but still do not see the results, you’re probably wondering what else to do for your constipation.

Since there are different types of laxatives for constipation on the market, it is difficult to know which one is the best in your case, as this also depends on the individual.

If you don’t know where to begin, you should first try with a bulk-forming laxative as this one will work toward making your stool more compact.

If your stool stays hard and difficult to pass, try adding or switching to an osmotic laxative that will help you retain more water.

Maybe you’ve noticed that your poo is actually soft but are still having difficulties with your bowel movements. If this is the case, try a stimulant laxative along with s bulk-forming one. The former will speed up your digestion and simplify the whole thing.

Of course you should talk to your general practitioner or consult a pharmacist if you’ve been experiencing these problems for a long time, or believe such laxatives are not right you.

How to Take Laxatives

The process of taking laxatives depends on the form of laxative you choose.

Laxatives are normally available as either:

  • tablets or capsules: such laxatives need to be taken with water and are a good fit for people who don’t have problems with swallowing;
  • sachets of powder: since you simply mix such laxatives with water and drink them, they’re better for older people or those who struggle with swallowing large capsules;
  • suppositories: those usually come in a form of a capsule that you insert into your rectum and then wait for it to dissolve. Such (smaller) suppositories are especially suitable for children, but might be less convenient if you have trouble moving and cannot reach your backside.

When deciding on the form of laxative, you should therefore consider your physical state and choose the one that best suits your needs.

You should also pay attention to the time of the day you take your laxative, as some need to be taken on an empty stomach or as the last thing before you go to sleep in the evening.

If you’re taking osmotic or bulk-forming laxatives, don’t forget to drink a lot of water as they can cause dehydration.

Remember to always follow the instructions, and never take more than the recommended dose. If you’re not sure about any of the instructions, ask a pharmacist or your GP for advice.

How Long Do Laxatives Take to Work?

Different types of laxatives can take a different amount of time before you can see the effects.

The full effect of bulk-forming laxatives is normally seen in two or three days, even though they can have some effect within 24 hours.

Osmotic laxatives generally take two to three days to show any effect, so they are not the right answer if you are looking for a fast-acting laxative.

Quick results can be obtained by taking stimulant laxatives, which usually work within six to 12 hours. Similarly, stool softeners usually work within 12 to 72 hours, so you can also get quick relief in some cases.

Lastly, really fast-acting laxatives are those given via the rectum, as they usually only take 15–30 minutes to work.

A man is holding a laxative in one hand and a glass of water in the other.

Laxative Side Effects

As with many other pills or medications, side effects are also pretty common with laxatives. But don’t worry, as are usually mild and should go away when you stop taking the laxatives.

The side effects you might experience also depend on the type of laxative, although some common ones include:

  • bloating
  • gas
  • stomach cramps
  • feeling ill in general
  • dehydration and related headaches, dark urine, dizziness

More severe side effects can be the following:

  • rectal bleeding
  • severe cramps
  • blood in your stools
  • difficulty swallowing
  • a rash
  • irregular heartbeat

Remember that laxatives should not be taken too often or for long periods of time, as this can lead to negative effects such as diarrhoea, intestinal obstruction or an imbalance of salts and minerals in your body.

In case you are worried about any side effects and especially if you start experiencing severe ones, turn to your GP for advice immediately.

When to Seek Medical Help

Problems with constipation are usually eliminated pretty quickly, and natural laxatives are often sufficient. However, sometimes immediate medical attention is required.

Contact your doctor immediately in case you experience the following symptoms along with constipation:

  • severe or chronic pain in your abdomen: this can be a sign of a more serious illness that needs to be treated immediately, such as intestinal obstruction, perforated intestine or stomach, pancreatitis, appendicitis, etc.;
  • vomiting: this can be a symptom of faecal impaction that happens when a large mass of stool gets stuck in your colon and cannot find its way out, which must be taken extremely seriously;
  • bloating: if your stomach is painful, this can point to bowel obstruction or conditions such as gastroparesis, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and others;
  • bloody stools: a small amount of blood on your toilet paper is not necessarily a cause for panic, however, in case you notice more than just a bit of bright red blood or have black stools, immediately call your doctors as they could be a sign of ulcers, Crohn’s disease or other serious conditions.

Additionally, seek medical help if you still experience constipation even after seven days of using a laxative, as the problem should have been solved in that time.

Finally, constipation may be a warning sign of other conditions, such as colon cancer, hypothyroidism, or diabetes, and so if this is a common problem make sure you schedule an appointment to see if everything is okay.

A conversation between a doctor and a patient in a doctor’s office.

First natural, and only then switch to stronger remedies

Constipation is definitely an unpleasant condition that usually appears due to stress and lifestyle changes, or inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle.

Luckily many natural laxatives can do their job extremely well, and help to increase the frequency of your bowel movement as well as stool consistency.

If the natural approach combining hydration, a healthy diet and physical activity does not prove to be successful, there are different types of laxatives that could speed up the whole process.

Always make sure you follow the instructions on the medication you’re taking, and talk to your GP or pharmacist in case of any uncertainty. Seek immediate help if your symptoms don’t go away after treatment, or if you start experiencing more serious problems.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are actually laxatives?

Laxatives are agents that soften the stool or stimulate excretion in general. They are of great help to everyone suffering from slow digestion or constipation.

2. Which types of laxatives do we know?

Types of laxatives are distinguished according to their effect. Therefore, we can distinguish between:

  • laxatives that increase the stool volume,
  • stool softeners that help soften the stool and facilitate its movement through the body,
  • laxatives lubricants that moisten the surface of the stool,
  • osmotic laxatives that help the colon retain more water which increases the frequency of bowel movements,
  • stimulative laxatives that can accelerate digestion and initiate bowel movements, and
  • salty laxatives which work by drawing water into the small intestine and thereby stimulating bowel movements.

If you are not sure which type of laxative is the best for your problem, consult your doctor or pharmacist.

3. What are natural laxatives?

Natural laxatives include Ricinus and olive oil, aloe vera and magnesium citrate. Donat is also an excellent natural laxative which, with its unique combination of magnesium and sulphate, increases the volume of the excrement and softens the bowels in order to facilitate the bowel movement. Since it works on the principle of osmosis (it absorbs the water from the gut cells), it belongs to the group of osmotic laxatives.

4. How to take laxatives?

Laxatives are available as pills or capsules for swallowing, powder to be consumed with water or some other beverage, as well as rectal suppositories.

5. What are possible side-effects of laxatives?

The most common side-effects of taking laxatives are bloating, abdominal cramps, malaise, and dehydration. These effects are mostly mild, and they disappear after we stop taking laxatives. In rare cases, or in case of improper or excessive consumption of laxatives, side-effects such as rectal bleeding, cramps, difficulty in swallowing, rash or irregular heart rhythm may occur. If you notice any of these side-effects, immediately stop taking the laxative and ask for medical help.

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