Constipation is one of the most commonly reported health problems, affecting at least one in five younger people and one in three older adults, according to the National Institutes of Health.
What helps relieve constipation fast? While a number of over-the-counter medications are available to treat this condition quickly, there are also natural laxatives that can work equally well for some people.
Natural laxatives, in the form of certain foods, beverages and herbs, have been used for wellness purposes to alleviate constipation for over 2,000 years.
People have always known that bowel movements are necessary for good health, but in today’s fast-paced society, a poor diet, stress or frequent traveling can get in the way of you and good digestion.
Today, there are dozens of different laxatives available on the market to help those who frequently get constipated — everything from herbal teas and detox tinctures, to pills and enemas.
Technically, there are several types of laxatives that work in various ways, which include: stimulant agents; saline and osmotic products; bulking agents; and surfactants.
- Stimulant laxatives — This is the type most people use regularly and buy over-the-counter (OTC). They are also thought to be the most over-used. These products cause a laxative effect by stimulating the lining of the intestines and making the muscles of the digestive system contract, while also increasing stool’s hydration. Over time, stimulant laxatives can actually weaken the body’s natural ability to go to the bathroom, which is why they pose the risk for “laxative dependency.”
- Bulk-forming laxatives — “Bulking agents” are types of fiber treatments that are the mild laxatives most doctors recommend first to patients for increasing slow transit time. Fiber works by increasing the water content and bulk of the stool so it can move quickly through the colon.
- Stool softeners (also called emollient laxatives) — These work by drawing moisture from water/fluids into stools to make them easier to pass, especially for people with conditions such as hemorrhoids that are painful when they strain. They come in capsule, tablet, liquid and syrup form and are usually taken with water.
- Saline laxatives (also sometimes called sodium phosphate) — This type increases fluid in the small intestine and is sometimes used to clear out the bowels before a colonoscopy. These are intended to be used as a single dose, taken once a day, and not used for more than three days in a row.
- Enema — This type is inserted into the rectum so it can directly deposit saline fluid. Enemas are also typically intended for one time use.
- Lubricant laxatives — These work by making stools “slippery,” usually with mineral oils that coat the intestinal walls and prevents stool from drying out. These can be helpful for reducing constipation pain associated with conditions like hemorrhoids.
- Osmotic-type (or hyperosmolar) laxatives — These are hydrating agents that draw fluids into the intestines.
How Do Laxatives Work?
When someone has a normal bowel movement, the stool is formed by the absorption of waste, unwanted nutrients, electrolytes and water within the gut. These normally come together to make a soft-but-solid substance that is then able to easily pass through the digestive tract.
Most of the nutrients from the foods you eat are not actually absorbed in the stomach, but in the small intestine. The large intestines, or colon, mostly absorbs water. After traveling through your stomach and intestines, waste moves down to your colon, where it’s ready to make its way out.
The entire digestive process involves many aspects of your body, including enzymes, electrolytes, water, hormones, blood flow and more. You can see why short-term or chronic constipation can occur for many different reasons, including:
Each type of laxative works somewhat differently as a remedy for constipation, as described more above. Some of the ways they work include drawing water into the intestines, softening stools, and causing muscles in the digestive tract to contract and push waste out.
Who can benefit from taking laxatives?
There may be some times when laxatives are appropriate, but probably not as often as people assume. For otherwise healthy adults, it’s likely okay to take laxatives every now and then, such as when you’re traveling and jet-lagged or dealing with a short-term stomach illness. If you do feel that you need to take a laxative, try a gentler, natural product such as castor oil.
What’s considered “normal” when it comes to pooping? Most experts agree that it’s important to go to the bathroom at least three or more times per week at a minimum. But the number of bowel movements someone should have each day/week varies from person to person, so there is not one specific number that is considered completely “normal” and healthy.
The bottom line is that if you’re currently not going at least this amount, making changes to your diet and lifestyle first (for example, eating more fiber, exercising and reducing stress) are crucial to solving the problem long-term.
Foods that Improve Digestive Function
It’s important to realize that while OTC or prescription laxatives might help solve constipation symptoms in the short-term, they ultimately don’t fix any underlying digestive issues. In fact, they can make the problem even worse. They may cause unwanted and dangerous side effects, and even become addictive since the body begins to rely on them over time to function properly.
Our bodies have an amazing natural ability to cleanse and detox on their own — we just need to provide the correct nutrients and hydrating fluids.
What foods will make you poop right away? Most foods that promote regular bowel movements don’t work immediately, but rather help to keep you “regular” long-term.
Most adults, and children too, could afford to eat more fiber. While increasing intake of high-fiber foods alone might not solve all cases of constipation, it’s definitely one of the first steps to take.
What’s considered a high-fiber diet? Make sure you aim to get between 25–40 grams of fiber per day.
Adult men/larger individuals need a higher amount than women and smaller individuals. You always want to get your fiber from natural sources (unprocessed, whole foods) whenever possible, as opposed to artificially created fibers found in processed “high-fiber” bars, shakes, etc,
Best Natural Laxatives
Fruits, leafy greens and other veggies, seeds, certain herbs, and probiotic-filled foods can all serve as home remedies when it comes to softening stool and relieving constipation. By focusing on eating real, whole foods you’ll obtain both soluble and insoluble fiber, along with important electrolytes, vitamins and minerals that your digestive system relies on.
So before you reach for the OTC laxatives, add these seven foods to your diet:
1. Aloe Vera
What is the best laxative that works fast? Some would say aloe vera, which is one of the oldest and well-researched natural laxatives there is.
Sometimes called aloe “latex,” this substance comes packed with enzymes, vitamins, minerals and electrolytes that help soften stools and heal the gut. For example, anthraquinones are a type of compound present in aloe that act like a laxative by increasing intestinal water content, stimulating mucus secretion and increasing intestinal peristalsis naturally (contractions that break down food).
Aloe vera latex also has anti-inflammatory components that reduce swelling and and improve function of the digestive organs, making it easier to pass bowel movements. Some of the other benefits of aloe vera are its ability to help normalize acid/alkaline and pH balance, lessen yeast formation and encourage the growth of good digestive bacteria.
2. Chia Seeds
One of the benefits of chia seeds is its ability to absorb water in the GI tract and, therefore, work as a natural laxative.
Chia seeds provide 10 grams of fiber per one-ounce serving. They combine with liquid to form a gelatinous substance that easily moves through your intestines. As a great way to increase the fiber in your diet, chia seeds swell and expand in the digestive tract, absorbing fluids. They’re best for constipation when you also increase your fluid intake, helping them move through the gut easily.
Flaxseeds are an excellent source of fiber, which adds bulk to your stool and helps it pass through your intestines. They provide about 3 grams of fiber per tablespoon. As an added bonus, flaxseeds work to treat both constipation and diarrhea, according to research studies.
They’re practically tasteless, and one of the benefits of flaxseeds is it’s easy to use in recipes you already make, like oats, baked goods and smoothies.
Just remember that whenever you eat a lot of fiber, you want to also make sure to drink plenty of water, too — since a high amount of fiber without enough hydrating liquids can actually result in even more bathroom troubles! Drinking enough water in general along with a high-fiber diet makes it easier to pass waste from the body and less likely you’ll experience uncomfortable hard stools, bloating, gas, and pains.
4. Leafy Green Veggies
What’s one of the best natural laxatives to lose weight? Low-calorie, high-fiber vegetables!
Not only a great source of fiber, leafy greens like spinach and kale also provide plenty of magnesium. Magnesium deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies in adults, so eating more comes with many benefits, including better digestive health.
Magnesium is an electrolyte in leafy greens that has the natural ability to safely soften stool and help draw in water from your gut.
Without enough magnesium, it’s hard for stool to easily move through your system, especially since magnesium is a natural muscle relaxer, which can help stop cramping in the abdomen. If you notice that increasing magnesium-rich foods results in your stools becoming too loose and watery, you can adjust your intake until its comfortable and back to normal.
5. Probiotic Foods
Probiotics are “good bacteria” in your gut that are able to balance various types of “bad bacteria.” They help create a healthy environment in your gut “microflora” and can help keep you free of digestive problems, including constipation or diarrhea.
Probiotic foods include things like kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and probiotic yogurt.
Just make sure that when buying dairy products, you always choose organic products, as they are easier on digestion, such as goat milk products, organic kefir, raw dairy products or dairy that doesn’t contain A1 casein. It’s possible that low-quality pasteurized/homogenized dairy, or too much dairy in general (especially if someone has symptoms of lactose intolerance), can cause inflammation and contribute to digestive dysfunction.
6. High-Fiber Fruit (Berries, Figs, Apples, Prunes, Pears)
These are some of the best natural laxatives for kids. Fruit provides high levels of fiber and water in addition antioxidants, which can help to reduce inflammation throughout the digestive system.
While fresh fruit such as berries, melon and apples are more hydrating and filling, dried fruit like figs, prunes or dates are also a good source of dietary fiber when in a pinch, especially when you consume several at once.
Fruits that contain pectin fiber (apples or pears) are especially good choices, since pectin stimulates your bowels. Apple cider vinegar is also an excellent option for naturally treating constipation. For most people, fruit helps relieve constipation while also making you feel comfortably full, but again it comes down to individual reactions to various kinds.
Wondering if bananas are a natural laxative, or if they are in fact”binding”? Because bananas contain fiber, resistant starch and potassium, they can help to keep you regular.
However, some people report that they contribute to digestive issues and make constipation worse, so it really comes down to the individual. Green, underripe bananas are the best source of resistant starch, so these are most likely to help you go, rather than back you up.
7. Coconut Water
Coconut water is good for you for many reasons — not only does it taste great as an alternative to plain old water or sugary drinks, but it also helps with maintaining healthy electrolyte levels, preventing dehydration and clearing out your urinary tract.
For centuries, coconut water has been used for a natural hydration boost due to its high electrolyte content, especially potassium (which it provides 12 percent of your daily value of in every one-cup serving). Because it tastes great, it’s one of the best natural laxatives for kids.
In fact, coconut water can be so healing for constipation that some people find drinking too much loosens stools to an uncomfortable level, so start slow.
What foods should you avoid when constipated?
- Processed foods, which contain little fiber or nutrients. This includes processed meats like cold cuts or hot dogs and high sodium frozen foods.
- Fried foods, which can slow down stool’s transit time through the intestines and essentially “clog up” digestion.
- Alcohol, which increases urine production and fluid loss.
- Pasteurized dairy products, which may contribute to bloating and can also lead to infant constipation.
- Refined flour, which does not contain any fiber and, therefore, will not help with constipation.
- Caffeine (depends on the person), which may help improve bowel movements by stimulating muscle contractions, but can also lead to dependence, increase anxiety symptoms and lead to water loss.
Another thing to note about foods that function as natural laxatives: Each person is a bit different, and not everyone reacts to foods in the same way.
For example, some fruits/veggies contain FODMAPs, types of carbohydrates that are tough for some people to break down, which can can actually worsen bloating/constipation problems and cause IBS-like symptoms. So, always test your own reaction to foods and come up with a constipation diet plan that works for you.
To deal with not being “regular,” many people turn to laxatives in the form of medications or enemas to get the job done fast. In fact, laxatives are one of the most commonly bought over-the-counter medications there is.
According to the FDA, “some over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives some may turn to for relief are potentially dangerous if dosing instructions or warnings on the Drug Facts label are not properly followed or when there are certain coexisting health conditions.”
There have been dozens of cases of reported serious side effects attributed to laxative use, as well as 13 fatalities, as stated by the FDA.
Abusing laxatives is also dangerous. Who is at risk for overuse of laxatives? According to the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine, people who abuse laxatives regularly are generally categorized as falling into one of four groups.
- By far the biggest group of laxative users is “individuals suffering from an eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa,” with estimates showing that 10 percent to 60 percent of those with disordered eating use laxatives to help control their weight and feelings. People falsely believe that they can avoid some of the “absorption of calories” from the foods they eat, but this isn’t even true for the most part and actually can lead to many dangerous side effects.
- Middle-aged or older adults tend to use laxatives to alleviate constipation as digestive functions slow down.
- Athletes or bodybuilders who are trying to maintain a certain weight and look may use these substances to to decrease bloating.
- People who deal with digestive system problems such as IBS also tend to use laxatives.
After taking laxatives, it’s not uncommon to deal with some serious gastrointestinal complaints, such as bloating and stomach discomfort.
Too much synthetic fiber or overuse of mineral oils from laxatives can also reduce your body’s absorption of some drugs and medications.
Another issue is that lubricant laxatives can absorb fat-soluble vitamins from the intestines and decrease certain nutrient levels.
Risks and Side Effects
Side effects and health problems associated with laxative overuse and abuse include:
- stomach bloating
- dehydration (fluid loss)
- electrolyte imbalances
- acid/alkaline base changes
- the inability to produce enough digestive enzymes
- edema (water retention)
- dizziness and light-headedness
- damage to the colon and digestive organs
- alternating diarrhea and constipation
- complications with the cardiovascular systems
- weight loss or gain
- other life-threatening side effects, including death when overused
OTC lubricant or bulking agents often come with some not-so-pleasant side effects. Fiber works by increasing the water content and bulk of the stool so it can move quickly through the colon. Naturally occurring fiber from food is great for this purpose, but people who increase their fiber abruptly can suffer abdominal cramping, bloating or gas.
The renin-aldosterone part of the digestive system becomes activated when taking laxatives, which results in the loss of fluid. The body rebounds by holding on to all of the available water it can get, which leads to edema (water retention or bloating) and short-term weight gain, even a slowdown in your metabolism once laxative intake is stopped.
For some people, this triggers further use of laxatives in order to get the body to shed water and solve any symptoms of rebound constipation.
- Over-the-counter laxatives are some of the most widely used medications. These may be effective constipation remedies in the short-term, but they pose risk for side effects like dependence, dehydration, bloating, diarrhea, electrolyte imbalance and more.
- Certain foods, drinks and herbs can make it easier to pass bowel movements and prevent constipation, without posing much risk for side effects. That is why a healthy diet can be the best natural laxative available to you.
- Want to know how to get rid of constipation fast at home? Try natural laxatives that work fast for constipation relief, which include: aloe vera, leafy greens, chia and flax seeds, high fiber fruits, probiotic foods, and coconut water.
- Also make sure to drink plenty of water/fluids when consuming natural laxatives, since these work with high fiber foods to help soften stool.
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