Are Laxatives Safe?

by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM Published on , Last Updated on August 18, 2015

constipated man

Our customer service department regularly gets feedback from customers who question the safety of laxatives. These folks are right to be concerned. Although constipation is a problem that needs remedy, and laxatives are often thought of as that remedy, this is a topic that really deserves a second look. There’s been discussions and research that suggest herbal laxatives aren’t without risk.

Why Use Laxatives?

Laxatives are supposed to be used for the relief of occasional constipation. Constipation is a gastrointestinal disorder that results in difficult or fewer bowel movements. It’s common in Western countries in everyone, children to the elderly. Constipation results from different factors. Low fiber or fluid intake are common causes, as is a lack of physical activity. If you check the ultra-long list of potential side effects that accompany most medications, you’ll find constipation listed on almost all. Bulk-forming laxatives, which have a function describing name, and osmotic laxatives, which draw fluid into the intestines, are usually recommended first. When ineffective, stimulant laxatives, which contain harsh herbs or chemicals, are a backup plan if the former don’t prove effective. However, long-term use of laxatives may be associated with harmful side effects, even added constipation. [1] [2]

When Should Laxatives Not Be Used?

Problems can occur and are especially likely when laxative use turns into laxative abuse. Laxatives are not recognized as an effective way to lose weight, yet some people misuse them with that intent. It’s an ineffective measure- only water weight is lost, absolutely no fat is lost whatsoever, and it can also be dangerous. Just this month an article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition Methods examined weight loss methods used by combat sport participants. Among those mentioned as dangerous were laxatives. [3]

How Harmful are Laxatives?

The good news is that according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, there is no evidence that use of stimulant laxatives leads to colorectal cancer. The bad news is that stimulant laxatives can cause structural damage to surface epithelial cells that line the rectum but there is no evidence that use causes structural or functional damage of intestinal nerves or smooth muscle. [4] When constipation is the result of medications, laxatives may produce side effects and drug interactions with those medications.

An eight year long Italian study to evaluate adverse reactions to herbal laxatives showed that 80% of the cases of adverse effects were by women and gastrointestinal or gallbladder related. Of those, 50% of the cases were serious enough to require hospitalization. The herbal remedies cited to cause problems contained licorice, dandelion, and other plants. The causes were thought due to long-term use, allergic reactions, and interaction with other medications. Researchers noted that while the incidence of adverse reaction was low, the seriousness of the reactions that did happen were serious enough to warrant caution and eliminate any notion of guaranteed safety. [5]

Other Methods for Relief

Other options to deal with constipation include acupuncture and surgery. Increased physical activity, fluid intake, and dietary fiber might also be effective recommendations but if chronic conditions or illnesses are the reason for decreased physical activity or dehydration, addressing those sources at the root is necessary. Awareness of normal gastrointestinal physiology (when you’re having a good day, when you’re having a bad day) can be an eye-opener just by itself. [6]

Another interesting form of relief, not commonly thought of, is abdominal massage. Abdominal massage was once an accepted method of addressing constipation but slowly fell out of standard. It’s attractive points are also without glamour- it’s inexpensive, non-invasive, free of side effects, and can be performed by patients themselves. No wonder a drug company wouldn’t promote it. A review of information written about the abdominal massage between 1999 and present found that abdominal massage can increase the frequency of bowel movements in constipated persons – without discomfort or pain. [7]

Laxatives Don’t Address the Causes of Constipation

It seems that most people can probably tolerate occasional laxative use but long-term use is a bad idea and can produce problems. Unfortunately, the real problem is that people who try to remedy chronic constipation with chronic laxative use are not addressing the root causes that are causing them to be constipated in the first place. Does relying on laxatives, every day, to force your body to function sound like a healthy situation? If an inadequate diet is the problem and your digestive system isn’t all it could be you might need a cleansing. Check out my brand new body cleansing diet. It’s a comprehensive approach to replace chronic problems with chronic health.


  1. Gordon M, Naidoo K, Akobeng AK, Thomas AG. Osmotic and stimulant laxatives for the management of childhood constipation. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Jul 11;7:CD009118. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009118.pub2. Review.
  2. Bosshard W, Dreher R, Schnegg JF, Büla CJ. The treatment of chronic constipation in elderly people: an update. Drugs Aging. 2004;21(14):911-30. Review.
  3. Franchini E, Brito CJ, Artioli GG. Weight loss in combat sports: physiological, psychological and performance effects. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Dec 13;9(1):52. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-52.
  4. Wald A. Is chronic use of stimulant laxatives harmful to the colon? J Clin Gastroenterol. 2003 May-Jun;36(5):386-9. Review.
  5. Vitalone A, Menniti-Ippolito F, Raschetti R, Renda F, Tartaglia L, Mazzanti G. Surveillance of suspected adverse reactions to herbal products used as laxatives. Eur J Clin Pharmacol. 2012 Mar;68(3):231-8. doi: 10.1007/s00228-011-1128-y. Epub 2011 Oct 2.
  6. Yakabowich M. Prescribe with care. The role of laxatives in the treatment of constipation. J Gerontol Nurs. 1990 Jul;16(7):4-11.
  7. Sinclair M. The use of abdominal massage to treat chronic constipation. J Bodyw Mov Ther. 2011 Oct;15(4):436-45. doi: 10.1016/j.jbmt.2010.07.007. Epub 2010 Aug 25. Review.

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