When you realize you're constipated, getting some exercise, eating more fibre, and drinking lots and lots of water usually helps. But what do you do when this is just not enough? There are other options you can choose from to give you relief.
Laxatives - products that relieve constipation - are commonly used, and there are many kinds available. Which one you choose depends on whether your constipation is occasional or long-term (chronic).
As with any medication, there are some side effects associated with the use of laxatives, such as diarrhea, stomach cramping and pain, nausea, vomiting, dehydration, gas, and rectal irritation. Generally, it is recommended to try gentler agents first.
For the relief of occasional constipation, most people want overnight relief. Stimulant laxatives such as senna, a natural source product, make the muscles in your intestine work to push the stool along more quickly. These products start working within hours. Pills and liquids will often produce relief overnight.
Glycerin and bisacodyl suppositories and mineral oil or phosphate enemas, used rectally, can work quickly.
For chronic constipation, the first step is to exercise, drink more water, and eat high-fibre foods. Even with these changes, however, some people, especially the elderly and people on certain medications, require the use of some products on a long-term basis. In this case, stool softeners, such as docusate sodium, help to soften and prevent dryness of the stool, as do osmotics such as lactulose and lubricants such as mineral oil. Mineral oil is rarely recommended anymore, however, as it may cause numerous problems, such as leaking from the anus and preventing vitamin absorption from food.
Bulk-forming agents, such as psyllium, add volume and draw water into the stool, promoting regularity. These are among the most popular - even some breakfast cereals contain psyllium.
For pregnancy-related constipation, bran or wheat fibre is usually tried first. Some natural products such as senna-based laxatives may be effective, but they are limited by their side effects and so are not recommended for long-term use. Lactulose or PEG may be used if the stools remain hard.
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the best option for you.