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Stimulant Laxatives

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

Stimulant laxatives are a type of medication commonly used to relieve constipation. They work by stimulating the intestines, promoting bowel movements and alleviating the discomfort associated with constipation. This article provides a detailed overview of stimulant laxatives, including their uses, mechanism of action, and potential side effects.

Who is it for?

Stimulant laxatives are primarily used to treat occasional or short-term constipation. The most commonly prescribed stimulant laxative is senna, which originates from the senna plant. These laxatives are normally taken at night because take around 12 hours to work and therefore people can relieve themself in the morning after.

They can be helpful in situations where constipation is caused by factors such as certain medications, dietary changes, or a lack of physical activity. They are typically recommended when other methods, such as dietary fiber, osmotic laxatives like lactulose, increased fluid intake, and lifestyle modifications have failed to provide relief.

How do they work?

Stimulant laxatives contain active ingredients that directly stimulate the intestines, promoting bowel movements. The active substances in these laxatives work by irritating the lining of the intestines which speeds up the bowel movements or by increasing fluid secretion into the bowel, which softens the stool and facilitates its passage. By enhancing intestinal contractions and increasing bowel activity, stimulant laxatives help to move the stool through the digestive tract, providing relief from constipation.

Are there any side effects?

While stimulant laxatives can effectively relieve constipation, they can also have potential side effects. Common side effects include:

  • abdominal cramps
  • diarrhea
  • electrolyte imbalances

Prolonged or excessive use of stimulant laxatives can lead to dependency, where the body becomes reliant on the laxative to produce regular bowel movements. This dependency can disrupt the natural bowel function and may require additional interventions to restore normal bowel habits.

It is important to note that stimulant laxatives are generally intended for short-term use. Long-term or excessive use should be avoided, as it can lead to complications and further digestive issues. Additionally, stimulant laxatives may interact with certain medications or medical conditions, so it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional before using them, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions or are taking other medications.

Who should avoid using stimulant laxatives?

Certain individuals should exercise caution or avoid using stimulant laxatives altogether. This includes individuals with intestinal blockage, inflammatory bowel disease, appendicitis, or any other condition affecting the gastrointestinal tract. Pregnant or breastfeeding individuals should also consult with their healthcare provider before using stimulant laxatives, as there may be potential risks or insufficient data regarding their safety during pregnancy or lactation.

Laxatives help relieve constipation. Stimulant laxatives work by irritating the cells lining your intestines. Examples include senna, bisacodyl, and sodium picosulfate. Patient safety reviews have suggested that we need new regulations to reduce the abuse and overuse of stimulant laxatives obtainable over the counter.

The dangers of stimulant laxative abuse

Some people, such as those with eating disorders, try to use stimulant laxatives to lose weight. Using stimulant laxatives for this purpose is extremely dangerous because it can lead to dehydration and an imbalance of electrolytes in your body.

Overusing stimulant laxatives can cause similar issues and lead to the development of a ‘lazy bowel’ where you become dependent on the medication to pass a bowel movement. In severe cases, this may cause problems with the rhythm of your heart and can even be life-threatening. Moreover, stimulant laxatives are not effective at causing weight loss.

What should I do to relieve constipation?

Stimulant laxatives should not be the first point of call for treating constipation. Instead, try implementing lifestyle measures such as increasing the amount of fiber in your diet, increasing exercise levels, and increasing your water intake.

What if this doesn’t work?

You should speak to your doctor or pharmacist if lifestyle measures are ineffective. They will decide what treatment is appropriate for you. Initially, they will likely recommend a bulk-forming laxative such as Fybogel (ispaghula husk). If you are still constipated, they may recommend you take an osmotic laxative like Movicol (macrogol) or lactulose. These laxatives are milder than stimulant laxatives and cause fewer side effects. Stimulant laxatives are usually only recommended when lifestyle measures and other laxatives have not worked.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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