Medically, constipation is defined as having three or fewer bowel movements per week, but the reality is far different: for someone who normally has two to three bowel movements per day, having only one a day can signal constipation. If occasionally you find yourself unable to stay regular—what feels like constipation to you—a fiber supplement or laxative may help get your body back on track.
Keep the following in mind as you choose a fiber or laxative product:
If you haven’t changed your eating habits and you’re experiencing constipation for the first time, consult your doctor. New constipation may signal a more serious health problem, especially if it lasts for more than a few days or is ongoing, even if intermittently.
If you are managing a health conditions, consider your medications when selecting constipation products. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if unsure about whether any particular digestion aid is safe for you.
Always compare ingredients to avoid accidentally doubling up on any one particular active ingredient.
Read labels carefully to ensure you pick the right products to meet your particular constipation issues.
If you are pregnant or nursing, talk to your doctor first before using any new laxatives.
What they are: There are two types of fiber (sometimes called bulk fiber), soluble and insoluble, and many different types of fiber supplements, such as psyllium, guar gum, cellulose, polycarbophil, wheat dextrin, and inulin. These products are available over the counter.
Why to buy: Fiber supplements are designed to address one of the common causes of constipation—a lack of fiber in the diet. Dietary fiber bulks up the stool and makes it softer and easier to pass, which alleviates constipation. Insoluble fiber is more commonly recommended for constipation, but some people do better with a combination of insoluble and soluble fibers. If you try one fiber supplement and it doesn’t agree with you, try another brand, which may work better with your system.
Things to consider: Start at a low dose, with plenty of water, and increase the amount of fiber supplement a bit at a time. Too much fiber at once may cause gas and bloating. Insoluble fiber supplements can decrease the absorption of some minerals, especially calcium, and some medications. Leave an hour or two between when you take your fiber supplement and when you take calcium. If you take prescription medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist how a fiber supplement can affect drug absorption and how you can safely take a fiber supplement without affecting your medications.
What they are: Stool softeners are medications that help the stools hold onto water, making stools softer and easier to pass.
Why to buy: Stool softeners are available over the counter and tend to be gentler on the digestive system than stimulant laxatives, making them a good option for addressing mild constipation. Some prescription medications can dry out and harden stools, so taking a stool softener with these medications can help prevent this problem. Stool softeners come as capsules, to be taken orally, and suppositories, which are placed directly into the rectum. Though suppositories are faster acting, most people prefer oral medication.
Things to consider: Stool softeners are considered safe for most people, but do not take them without consulting your doctor if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you have serious digestive conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease or bowel obstructions. Some people are allergic to the active ingredient in certain stool softeners.
Stimulant Laxative & Oral Osmotic Medications
What they are: Stimulant laxatives cause the muscles in the lower intestinal tract to relax and loosen, allowing stools to pass through quickly, and include anthraquinones such as senna. This muscular action moves stools more quickly through the digestive tract. Oral osmotics pull a lot of extra water into the digestive tract, which loosens stools, and include products that contain magnesium, sorbitol, lactulose, and polyethylene glycol.
Why to buy: Stimulant laxatives, available over the counter, will often alleviate the toughest cases of constipation. They tend to work more quickly than fiber supplements, with more dramatic effects. Suppository stimulant laxatives often produce a bowel movement within 30 to 60 minutes; taken orally, they work within 6 to 12 hours.
Things to consider: Stimulant laxatives should be used occasionally. Long-term use is not safe and can lead to dependency and decreased bowel function. Further, long-term use may cause electrolyte imbalances, a potentially serious condition that can lead to abnormal heart rhythms, confusion, weakness, and seizures.
What they are: Lubricant laxatives, which includes mineral and castor oils, make stool slippery, so it moves through the intestine more easily.
Why to buy: Lubricant laxatives are very effective and work more quickly than fiber supplements, typically within six to eight hours, and with more dramatic effects.
Things to consider: Lubricant laxatives decrease the absorption of some minerals and of fat-soluble vitamins and some other nutrients. For this reason, they are generally not recommended. If used, lubricant laxatives should only be taken occasionally, for short periods of time.