Stimulant laxatives are preparations used to ease constipation by inducing a bowel movement. Available over-the-counter (OTC), they appear on the surface to be an easy answer to the problem of constipation. But are they safe? Can you use them on a long-term basis? Learn the answers to those questions about stimulant laxatives so that you can make an informed decision for yourself.
A visit to your local drugstore will show you that there are lots of different available brands of stimulant laxatives. These products come in a variety of forms, including tablets, liquids, and suppositories. The active ingredient in these products differ - here are the more common options:
- Bisacodyl: Alophen, Carters Little Pills, Correctol, Dulcolax, Ex-lax Ultra, Feen-A-Mint, Fleet Bisacodyl
- Sodium bicarbonate and potassium bitartrate: Ceo-Two Evacuant suppository
- Senna: Black Draught, ExLax, Fletcher's, Senexon, SennaGen and Senokot. Also found in herbal stimulant laxatives.
- Castor oil
How Stimulant Laxatives Work
The ingredients in stimulant laxatives induce a bowel movement by acting to speed up colonic muscle movement (motility). Stimulant laxatives differ in their action from stool softeners which work by reducing absorption of fluids in the intestines thereby increasing the amount of water in the stool. This results in a softer, easier-to-pass stool.
How to Use Stimulant Laxatives
When using stimulant laxatives make sure to read and follow package directions carefully. Determine if the product is a pill or liquid that should be taken orally or a suppository that is used rectally. Many of these products recommend that you use them at bedtime, in order to work with your body's natural biorhthyms to produce a bowel movement in the morning. As with all medications, check with your physician prior to use. Stimulant laxatives are designed to be used on a short-term basis only, meaning no longer than one week.
Side Effects of Stimulant Laxatives
- Allergic reactions
- Electrolyte imbalances
- Liver damage
Traditionally, there have been some concerns about the safety of stimulant laxatives. These areas of potential difficulty include a risk of tolerance, dependence and/or addiction to the medication or a fear that chronic use of stimulant laxatives could increase one's risk for colon cancer. A review published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology labels these risks as "myths and misconceptions" when referring to constipation treatment. However, some individuals with psychiatric and/or eating disorders are at risk for using stimulant laxatives in an unhealthy manner.
The Bottom Line
Stimulant laxatives appear to be a safe short-term treatment for constipation. Just be sure to follow dosing instructions carefully. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of using a stimulant laxative due to the safety considerations discussed above, you might want to consider using a stool softener as an alternative. If your constipation is a chronic problem, it is best that you work with your doctor to develop a long term management plan.
For more laxative options:
American College of Gastroenterology Chronic Constipation Task Force "An Evidence-Based Approach to the Management of Chronic Constipation in North America" The American Journal of Gastroenterology 2005 100:S1-S4.
Cash, C., Chang, L., Sabesin, S. & Vitat, P. "Update on the Management of Adults With Chronic Idiopathic Constipation" The Journal of Family Practice 2007 S13-S20.
Muller-Lissner, S., Kamm, M., Scarpignato, C., & Wald A. "Myths and misconceptions about chronic constipation." American Journal of Gastroenterology 2005 100:232-242.
DISCLAIMER: The information contained on this site is for educational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment rendered by a licensed physician. It is essential that you discuss with your doctor any symptoms or medical problems that you may be experiencing.