Most people do not spend a large amount of time contemplating the effects of different types of laxatives. But, since each laxative has its own unique benefits and side-effects, it’s important to learn the fundamentals so you’re prepared when you do need a laxative. Generally speaking, there are four different types of laxatives and all of them target constipation in very different ways. Bulk laxatives use fiber to stimulate bowel movements. Osmotic laxatives work by increasing the fluid secreted within the intestines. Stool softeners work by softening the stool.
But, in this article, we are going to focus on the fourth kind: stimulant laxatives. This type of laxative works by irritating the lining of the intestines to speed up muscle contractions in the colon. Stimulant laxatives can be very effective, but they tend to have the harshest side-effects that include extreme bloating and cramping. For some people, using a stimulant laxative to relieve constipation may not be worth the discomfort and potential risks.
What Makes Up a Stimulant Laxative?
Stimulant laxatives are generally available in three common forms: tablets, liquids, and suppositories. Over-the-counter stimulant laxatives usually include one of the following ingredients: 
- Sodium bicarbonate and potassium bitartrate
- Castor oil
Because of the strong effects, it’s important to use these products in accordance with the directions. These are not innocent elixirs to “do your own thing” with. Some people find that it’s a good idea to take them at night before going to bed. This supports the body’s natural routine in order to produce a bowel movement in the morning.
What are the Potential Side Effects of Stimulant Laxatives?
Stimulant laxatives are designed to be used on a short-term basis and it is usually recommended that they not be taken for more than a week. If you take stimulant laxatives for an extended period of time, they have been known to produce powerful and harmful side effects. The most common are stomach ache, cramps, and diarrhea. However, some consumers have experienced serious reactions including liver damage and electrolyte imbalances.  It’s also possible to become dependent on them in order to even go to the bathroom. Do you really want to live the rest of your life with a dysfunctional excretory system?
Should You Take Stimulant Laxatives?
Technically, stimulant laxatives are an FDA-approved drug and are considered “safe.” But, because these little firecrackers can have serious side effects when taken excessively, and can also cause bowel movement dependency, it’s important to use extreme caution when using stimulant laxatives.
The harsh effect on the stomach gives consumers legitimate reason to be concerned. I recommend avoiding stimulant laxatives all together. Whether you’re suffering from severe constipation or just want to stay regular, there are other types of laxatives that are far more safe, gentle, and effective.
-Dr. Edward F. Group III, DC, ND, DACBN, DABFM
- American College of Gastroenterology Chronic Constipation Task Force. An evidence-based approach to the management of chronic constipation in North America. Am J Gastroenterol. 2005;100 Suppl 1:S1-4.
- Cash, B.D., et al. Update on the management of adults with chronic idiopathic constipation. J Fam Pract. 2007 Jun;56(6 Suppl Update):S13-9; quiz S20.