Fiber supplements, also known as bulk laxatives, are products that relieve constipation. Because they are comprised of fiber, they add heft to and draw water into the stool. This softer, larger stool stimulates the intestines, producing a bowel movement. Fiber supplements are generally available over the counter. Remember that it is very important to drink plenty of fluids when using these products to avoid obstructions within the esophagus or colon. Here is an overview of the main types:
Intestinal bacteria interact with the natural fiber found within psyllium, increasing the risk for symptoms of gas and bloating. In rare cases, an individual may experience a severe allergic reaction to psyllium.
Calcium polycarbophil is a synthetic form of fiber. In contrast to psyllium, calcium polycarbophil runs less of a risk of interacting with gut bacteria and producing unwanted gas. Calcium polycarbophil is found in the following products:
Citrucel is the only product that contains methylcellulose. Methylcellulose contains both synthetic and natural fiber. It is also resistant to action by intestinal bacteria.
Do Fiber Supplements Work?
According to a review from the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) there are not a lot of well-run, conclusive studies regarding the safety and effectiveness of fiber supplements. There is some research support that psyllium increases stool frequency in patients who suffer from chronic constipation. A separate research study compared psyllium and bran as a treatment for IBS. That study found that psyllium was more effective in reducing IBS symptoms and that bran was more likely to cause unwanted side effects.
The Bottom Line
If you are thinking about taking a fiber supplement, psyllium seems to hold the highest promise in terms of effectiveness. Whether you choose psyllium or one of the other types, be sure to drink plenty of water! And don't forget to add more high fiber foods to your daily diet.
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.
Bijkerk, C., Wit, N., Muris, J., Whorwell, P., Knottnerus, J. & Hoes, A. "Soluble or insoluble fibre in irritable bowel syndrome in primary care? Randomised placebo controlled trial" British Medical Journal 2009 339:b3145.
Lembo, A. & Camilleri, M. "Chronic Constipation" The New England Journal of Medicine 2003 349:1360-1368.
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.