Here is everything you need to know about laxatives

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Nicola Parker, of Health and Herbs, in Morecambe, writes about the pitfalls of laxatives

During the course of my career, I’ve been meeting more and more people wanting to branch out and look for alternative methods to care for their health.

I find it inspiring to see people taking control of their own health. Especially when modern medicine fails to provide satisfactory solutions to every day health problems that may last a lifetime without proper treatment.

For non life threatening conditions, this can often be the case as we find ourselves becoming reliant on everyday medications that focus on relieving symptoms, but don’t actually solve the problem. Unfortunately, in some instances, these medicines can exacerbate the problem and this is especially true in the case of laxatives.

Laxatives come in different forms. Some carry fibre and water into the large intestine. These are often safe to use long term as they aid us in doing what we should already be doing through our diet. Others, cause the muscles of our colon to move faster. This rapid movement means that water is not always reabsorbed into the body, causing loose or liquid stool. It is these types of laxatives that can be problematic.

A classic herb known to have this effect is Senna. Senna, in its natural form, comes as large dried pods that can be brewed as a tea. For convenience, it is also often found in tablets or as liquid. If you’ve received it from your doctor or chemist, you may know it as Senokot. Senokot and Senna are not the only laxatives that work in this way, but they are perhaps the best known. Senna shouldn’t be taken for any more than a week at a time. This is because the muscles of the bowel can begin to rely on it and fail to function properly without them.

In my own clinic, I find Senna far too purgative and usually both unnecessary and unhelpful. I’m much more likely to see, are people who have become stuck using laxatives like Senna, wanting help to come off it. Reliance on laxatives can be a result of regular laxative use and if this is the case, retraining your bowel to move on its own is necessary. The good news is, this is very easy to do. The bad news, is that it does require some patience.

Cutting out your laxatives while your bowel is lazy, will cause constipation that can lead to some serious problems. Instead, I suggest reducing the dose lowly, while introducing herbs that help to tone the bowel muscles, making it strong enough to work on its own.

Some years ago, I met a man that had been using laxatives for over 10 years. He was concerned that over this time, he’d had to increase the dose multiple times and finally decided that he wasn’t willing to do this again. I asked him to use a remedy called FOS, a powder sourced from the root of the chicory plant. FOS isn’t digested until it reaches the bowel and once there, it feeds the important bacteria that make their home there, producing compounds that stimulate peristalsis (the squeezing action of our bowel muscle). These compounds can make us very windy, so it’s imperative that you introduce FOS slowly. Just as slowly as one would reduce their laxatives.

For the next four months, this gentleman visited me every week and each week we gradually reduced his laxatives and gradually increased his FOS. Once his laxative dose had reached zero, we worked together on eliminating the FOS and after four months his bowel was working effectively on its own for the first time in over 10 years! No medication, no herbs, just healthy digestive muscles.

If you’ve found yourself stuck on laxatives, it is possible to break free from them, but it is best done with supervision, dietary adjustments and a good dollop of patience. Remember that water is as important as fibre and that hydrating yourself with tea or coffee will likely make the problem worse.

Laxatives can be an essential tool for some people, but they are not your only option. If you’re tired of taking pills because your bowel is lazy, ask your pharmacist or herbalist about other avenues you can take to give it strength again.