Laxatives And Fiber (Good or Bad)?
By and large, Americans do not have healthy guts.
A variety of factors contribute to that, from environmental factors (exposure to toxins) to food-based factors and even the way a person’s genetic profile assimilates food.
All across the nation, people deal with going too frequently or not going frequently enough.
And while I don’t know the exact numbers, I think more people are stopped up than going too much, just based on the pharmacy shelves and how many laxatives there are compared to anti-diarrheal.
Worse yet, tons of people think this is normal!
They think it’s normal to have to take something like Ex-lax every few days.
They think having occasional bouts of diarrhea are normal.
But it’s not.
And while there’s no magic number of bowel movements a person should have in a day, it’s at least one.
Your body is designed to take, process, and expel food quickly. If you’re not able to do that, it’s not because you don’t have enough laxatives in your diet. And, despite what you may have read, it may even be the case that it has nothing to do with fiber.
So today, I’ll be covering the topic of laxatives as well as the common recommendation to take additional fiber if you’re constipated.
Why Are You Constipated In the First Place?
Laxatives and fiber supplements are chiefly designed to fix a problem temporarily.
A problem that isn’t meant to be there if your body is healthy and functioning optimally.
Before you go to the store and get Metamucil or Miralax, it is a good idea to start tracking if and when you get constipated and work backward to see if there are certain foods that contribute to your issue.
And it should go without saying, but if your diet is built off foods that are processed (natural or not) and you don’t get adequate amounts of healthy fats in your diet, there’s a good chance that could be an issue.
Now, notice I didn’t say fiber.
As odd as it sounds, you don’t need fiber to maintain healthy bowel movements.
It doesn’t hurt to have fiber, but it’s not essential. It is not essential like protein, fats, and carbohydrates (though you are likely to get fiber with most sources of carbohydrates).
How can I be so sure, as everyone ever, even myself, has said, that you need fiber?
Well, think about this: there’s a long list of cultures that existed in the past, and even in the present day, that get very little to NO fiber in their daily diet, and they’re counted as some of the healthiest in the world.
The Inuit (Eskimos) are one such culture, as they are almost entirely dependent on animal-based sources of food. And the Native Americans who roamed the plains of the United States subsisted on almost entirely meat.
There are others who do very well without it, those who adhere to the carnivore diet amongst them,
The point I’m trying to make is that it’s likely the case that if you aren’t pooping right, it's not because of a lack of fiber. It’s likely other causes.
Yes, fiber is super important for a healthy diet and helps keep things moving in your digestive system.
But like everything in life, too much of a good thing isn't always good.
In fact, eating too much fiber can actually make constipation worse, especially if you don't drink enough water. It's like trying to push a big, dry sponge through a small tube.
Not easy, right?
So, it's important to eat fiber but not go overboard.
That’s why if you’re motivated to go to the bathroom, something as natural as psyllium fiber isn’t necessarily the right answer (although sometimes it can help with relief).
And laxatives, the ones with actual pharmaceutical agents, may also help in a pinch but have significant downsides as well.
One thing that can happen with laxatives is if you use them all the time, your body might start to think, "Hey, I don't need to work hard to poop anymore because the laxative is doing all the work for me!"
And in fact, it can make it harder to go to the bathroom in the future.
You could almost think of laxatives as being similar to a calculator for math. When you use them too much, you become dependent on them entirely.
Plus, laxatives often produce side effects. Some people might get stomach cramps, feel nauseous, or even get dehydrated. And if you use certain types for a long time, they can change the balance of minerals in your body, which isn't great.
And again, fiber supplements have problems, even if they are natural.
Many fiber supplements can cause bloating or gas. If you take a big old serving to try and relieve yourself, the fiber may actually ferment in the large intestine, which produces gas as a byproduct.
That can lead to cramps and, surprisingly, further constipation, especially if you’re not taking the fiber supplement with enough water. As fiber absorbs water without enough fluid, it can harden and lead to difficulty in passing stools.
Diarrhea is also a likely side effect of fiber supplementation, especially the ones that have psyllium, as they may speed up bowel movements and increase stool bulk.
Another Warning With Fiber Supplements
I also caution that some fiber supplements could interfere with nutrient absorption or inhibit the uptake of certain medications.
The reason is many kinds of fiber will bind with substances in the gut, which can include some medications, reducing their effectiveness, especially if the fiber moves through your body quickly.
Not to mention, there’s the chance you may have an allergic reaction to ingredients in fiber supplements, such as gluten or inulin. Symptoms can include itching, rash, or difficulty breathing.
Surprisingly, inulin is added to a ton of “healthy foods” nowadays, and it’s a leading cause of people’s gut pain, so if you can avoid it as a constipation reliever (or just in general), it’s not a bad idea.
So, What’s the Best Way to Relieve Constipation?
There’s probably not a one-size fits all approach to preventing constipation, as the causes of constipation run the gamut and may be unique to you and your gut microbiome.
That being said, I think if you do the following things, the chances that you’re able to maintain regularity and depend on laxatives (whether natural or not) very rarely is high.
Here’s a quick list of things to try:
Take Probiotics and Prebiotics: Include prebiotic and probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables, which help maintain a healthy gut microbiome, crucial for regular bowel movements.
Stay Hydrated: The chances of not being hydrated enough are high, and you need water to help move things through the digestive tract.
Don’t Become Magnesium Deficient: One of the most well-known laxatives on the market is “Milk of Magnesia,” and one of its primary ingredients is magnesium. The reason why it’s in there is magnesium can help to relax muscles, as well as attract water to the gut, which facilitates the easy passage of stool. So, be sure to get enough magnesium in your diet.
Stay Physically Fit: Engage in regular physical activity. Even a daily 30-minute walk can significantly improve bowel function.
Manage Stress: Stress can cause your body to tighten up, which may contribute to constipation. So, practicing stress-reducing techniques like meditation, deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness can help keep you regular.
Eat Good Fats: Fat is an unsung hero in digestion. Fats play a key role in digestion and bowel regularity. It prompts the gallbladder to release bile, aiding in fat digestion and stool bulk, leading to more regular bowel movements. Fats also trigger hormonal and neural responses in the small intestine, enhancing the movement of your bowel contents. Fat adds moisture and acts as a lubricant in the intestines, softening stools so they pass more easily.
Do this (and eat primarily whole foods), and if you still have issues, it may be time to talk to a physician!
Hope this helps!