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types of laxatives

What Types of Laxatives are Best? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

Alright, so we’ve all been there: that bloated, gassy, sluggish feeling of not having had our daily bowel movement – yuck! It’s an all-too-common discomfort and it can happen for a variety of reasons, including lack of fiber, too much fiber, dairy, lack of exercise, or under-hydration.

However, the bottom line is, you feel lousy and you want to stop feeling clogged asap. Well, it’s time to try a laxative.

But, which laxative is best? And how do each of them work?

There are many laxatives out there to choose from, both natural and pharmaceutical. However, while they all serve the same basic function, not all are good for you, and not all may work in the same manner.

But by considering the many varieties of laxatives, and exploring which one may be best for your body chemistry and symptoms, you can find one which can safely get you back to normal. And, not a moment too soon!

Here’s a roundup of the most common types of laxatives, how they work and whether they’re right for you.

Types of Laxatives 101

To start, let’s get an idea of the different types of laxatives there are, and how each of them works. Even though they all strive for the same result, not all do so in similar fashion. Likewise, some may be better than others at treating long-term vs short term problems, so the cause of your constipation should also be considered when choosing.

Oh, and by the way – if you suffer from chronic constipation, it may be time to visit your doctor, rather than relying on laxatives, since daily constipation can be an indicator of other health problems such as IBS, diabetes, or colon cancer.

That said, here are the basic types of laxatives out there. They fall under a few categories, like stimulants, bulking agents, lubricants, stool softeners, and saline and osmotic laxatives. Read on for details!

Stimulant Laxatives

As anyone who has had a bran muffin followed by a blast of espresso can tell you, stimulants get you moving. However, not all stimulants are alike, nor do they all make you jittery and wired the way espresso does.
Most work by exciting the nerves of the colonic tract and speeding up its muscles, which triggers a bowel movement.

However, stimulants should be considered for short-term use only (no longer than a week), and it is best to identify the root cause of your malaise and remedy it, rather than continuously relying on them. Long-term use of stimulants can result in Lazy Bowel Syndrome, which can end up increasing your chronic constipation, rather than curing it.

But for short-term, stimulant laxatives provide quick and easy relief. Here are the most effective ones!


One of the most well-known and popular herbal laxatives, Senna is readily available in teas, tablets and liquid medications. Senna contains properties called sennosides, which stimulate the linings of the colon and trigger the bowels to excrete their contents.

Since sennosides need time to pass through the digestive system and reach the lower colon, Senna is best used as an overnight laxative, and it typically takes around 8 to 12 hours for it to take effect. Senna should not be overused, since doing so can result in overactive bowels (run for it!), abdominal cramps, and low electrolyte levels.

Using too much for too long can also result in – rather than cure – chronic constipation, so use some caution! Senna is also known for causing urine discoloration, so don’t be shocked if things come out a yellowish-brown to pinkish-red, depending on the alkaline/acidity of your urine.

Sources of Senna:

Castor oil

Used as a laxative for centuries, castor oil comes from the castor bean, and it has only been in recent history that scientists have figured out why castor oil works. Castor oil contains a fatty acid called ricinoleic acid, which stimulates the muscles of the intestinal walls by binding to its receptors, causing the muscles to contract and expel the colon’s waste.

Castor oil is also fast-acting, so anyone who needs immediate relief from constipation should consider it over an overnight laxative, such as Senna. However, do be warned that flavor is NOT one of castor oil’s strong points, and it has long been known to be rather dreadfully unpalatable. Still, it works!

Sources of Castor oil:

Aloe Vera

Aloe is a highly versatile plant, with laxative being just one of its many medicinal uses. Aloe works by not only stimulating intestinal peristalsis (the intestinal contractions which move things along), it also stimulates mucous secretion and increases the water content of the intestinal tract.

This makes aloe a kind of “swiss army knife” laxative, since it does more than just stimulate the bowels, but also lubricates and softens stools.

Sources of Aloe Vera:

Bulking Laxatives

One of the most common causes of constipation is a diet low in fiber, which is why bulking agents are one of the most popular of all laxatives. Fiber is the indigestible components of plants, and are either soluble, or insoluble. Soluble fiber works by absorbing water and becoming a gel-like substance, which forms looser, more free-flowing stools.

Insoluble fiber does not absorb water, and works more like a scrub-brush, or a push broom, which remove waste by physically scraping it away.

Both kinds of fiber work best in unison with each other, although it should also be noted that too much fiber can cause – not relieve – constipation. This is because too much of it can be like a log-jam which blocks the intestine, particularly if you are not adequately hydrated, so bulking agents should be used as directed – including always drinking plenty of water along with them.

So what kind of bulking laxatives work best? Here are your options!


A common bulking agent, psyllium can be found in any number of fiber laxatives, as well as in its raw form, in capsules, and in wafers. Psyllium is made of the seed husks of the Plantago ovata plant, a shrub which, while cultivated around the world, comes mainly from India.

Psyllium is mostly soluble fiber, and plenty of water should be consumed along with it, not only for it to work well, but without adequate hydration, psyllium can be a choking hazard. As with most fiber laxatives, use of psyllium can cause gas and bloating, particularly when just starting out, so be aware that you may spend a few “puffy” days at first.

Sources of Psyllium:

Polycarbophil calcium

Polycarbophil is a synthetic fiber which uses calcium as a counter-ion, and it works in a fashion much like soluble fiber, which is by absorbing liquids to bulk and soften stools. Polycarbophil is man-made, and while the side effects are no worse than those listed for natural fiber (mild stomach pain, bloating and gas), it is nonetheless not an ideal choice for those who prefer a natural remedy.

Sources of Polycarbophil:


Methylcellulose is a polymer which is made by chemically treating plant cellulose, and is favored by those who want a less gassy fiber laxative. However, less gas may not be a good thing, since gas from fiber is caused by fermentation when good bacteria feed on it.

Since methylcellulose does not work as a prebiotic (i.e. feeds the probiotics in you), it may only be partially doing what a good bulking laxative should be doing.

Sources of Methylcellulose:

Lubricant Laxatives

Lubricant laxatives work by coating stools, which not only makes them more slippery and easy to move through the colon, but seals moisture in them as well. This means they work in a fashion like stool softeners, while adding a “slippery” element to help things move along.

Lubricants are most typically used by those who need to avoid straining, such as those recovering from hernia surgery, suffering from hemorrhoids, or having just gone through child birth.

So what lubricant laxatives work best? Here are your options!

Mineral oil

Certainly not the most natural alternative to constipation, but for those willing to share some with the car, mineral oil will help get things moving. However, there are some downsides to using it, since it inhibits the absorption of vitamins.

It should also not be used on a long-term basis, since the body will absorb and accumulate it over time. Do not use mineral oil if you are on blood thinners, since by inhibiting the absorption of vitamin K – a vitamin which is key in helping blood to clot – use of mineral oil can lead to excessive bleeding.

Source of Mineral Oil:

Olive oil

Olive oil may not be as effective to use as a laxative as mineral oil is, but it does have laxative properties, and is much better for you as well. Something else which is good about olive oil is, you can drizzle it on veggies for a tasty, fiber-filled snack, thus increasing its efficacy as a laxative.

Sources of Olive Oil:

  • Olives
  • Bottled oil, such as Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Stool Softeners

Stool softeners – or emollient laxatives – work just as their name suggests: by softening stools which are otherwise hard, lumpy, and tough to fit through your digestive tract. Stool softeners work by drawing water into the intestines, which is then absorbed by stools.

Stool softeners also tend to be more gentle-acting, so those wishing to avoid urgency or potential emergencies should consider them over other types of laxatives.

Which laxatives fall into the stool softening category?

Docusate sodium and docusate calcium

Typically derived from sodium, calcium or potassium salts, both docusates sodium and calcium work in an essentially identical manner. Both draw fluids into the colon, which mixes with and loosens fecal matter, making it easier to pass.

Side effects are minimal, although stomach pain, diarrhea and cramping can occur. You should also drink plenty of fluids while using these – or any – stool softeners.

Sources of Docusate:

Saline and Osmotic Laxatives

Saline and osmotic laxatives work much like stool softeners, in that they draw water to the stools, loosen them up, and make them easier to pass. However, they draw water from around the body, which can lead to dehydration and mineral deficiency, and they also take a long time (typically days) to work.

So if you’ve got some time – here are your best bets!

Magnesium hydroxide

Commonly referred to as Milk of Magnesia, magnesium hydroxide has long been used to clear up occasional bouts of constipation, as well as other uses—both medicinal and industrial. As a laxative, it uses osmosis to draw fluid to the colon and soften stools.

Magnesium hydroxide can trigger allergic reactions in some, such as rashes, hives and swelling of the face, lips and tongue, and it can also lead to low electrolyte levels, nausea, vomiting, rectal bleeding, weakness and loss of appetite. So yes, definitely not for long-term use.

Sources of Magnesium Hydroxide:


Lactulose is a synthetic sugar, which is broken down in the colon into components which absorb water and soften stools. Lactulose is also used by those suffering liver disease to remove excess ammonia from the blood. Lactulose is generally considered safe, although diarrhea, stomach pain, gas and vomiting can occur with use.

Sources of Lactulose:

  • Most often in liquids form, such as Generlac


A sugar alcohol which is metabolized very slowly, sorbitol draws water into the large intestine, which helps stimulate a bowel movement. While naturally occurring in some dried fruits such as prunes, cherries, and dates, sorbitol can cause gastrointestinal distress, gas, and cramping, along with dangerous allergic reactions in some individuals (which is rare).

Unfortunately, sorbitol is not the most potent of all laxatives, and it has been reported that it produced a laxative effect in as few as 5% of those taking 25g of it throughout the day.

Sources of Sorbitol:

  • Dried fruits, such as dates, prunes and raisins – yes, prune juice counts
  • Liquid solution like Sorbitol Solution
  • Sugar free baked goods, candies and ice creams – Haribo’s Sugarless Gummy Bears fall under this category and the yummy bears have been reported to be potent (really potent) laxative. Here’s one particularly amusing customer review…”I didn’t feel the need to plan my weekend around 5 small gummy bears. But if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  It began with a noticeable change in the viscosity of my saliva. A salty sweat broke out, and I felt my heartbeat quicken as my body threw itself into fight or flight. The animal noises broadcasting from my pelvis were an ominous warning of the violent acts that were to follow. I shouldered my way into the bathroom, clawing at my belt, moaning with pain…

Polyethylene glycol compounds

Commonly referred to as PEG’s, polyethylene glycol is usually derived from petroleum sources, and is used in many applications, from laxative to industrial manufacturing. As a laxative, polyethylene glycol helps fecal matter retain fluids, making it easier to pass.

However, it is also controversial so far as safety (it is used in such things as automotive antifreeze and brake fluid), and the FDA has linked it to “neuropsychiatric events.” It is not recommended that it be used internally for more than 7 days at a time, and as little as 30ml can be deadly. Use it only if you must – there are better laxative alternatives out there, in our honest opinion.

Sources of Polyethylene Glycol:

So, with the many laxative options available for you to choose from, there is certain to be a safe and effective one for your symptoms and body chemistry.

Yes, it is recommended that you stick with the natural ones, since they are generally healthier, and with fewer unwanted side effects, although the choice is ultimately yours.

The bottom line is, there is one which will work for you, so stop suffering and get some relief!

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