Laxatives can have powerful effects on your digestive health.
Because of their effects in the body, laxatives can help relieve constipation and promote regular bowel movements.
Surprisingly, there are many natural laxatives available that can be just as effective as over-the-counter products at preventing constipation.
This article will examine 20 natural laxatives and how they work.
Laxatives are substances that either loosen stool or stimulate a bowel movement.
They can also accelerate intestinal transit, which helps speed up the movement of the digestive tract to spur a bowel movement.
Laxatives are often used to treat constipation, a condition characterized by infrequent, difficult and sometimes painful bowel movements.
There are several types of laxatives that work in different ways. The main classes of laxatives are (1):
- Bulk-forming laxatives: These move through the body undigested, absorbing water and swelling to form stool.
- Stool softeners: They increase the amount of water absorbed by the stool to make it softer and easier to pass.
- Lubricant laxatives: These coat the surface of the stool and intestinal lining to keep in moisture, allowing for softer stools and easier passage.
- Osmotic-type laxatives: These help the colon retain more water, increasing the frequency of bowel movements.
- Saline laxatives: These draw water into the small intestine to encourage a bowel movement.
- Stimulant laxatives: They speed up the movement of the digestive system to induce a bowel movement.
Though over-the-counter laxatives can be very helpful in alleviating constipation, using them too often can cause electrolyte disturbances and changes in acid-base balance, potentially leading to heart and kidney damage in the long term (2).
If you're looking to achieve regularity, try incorporating some natural laxatives into your routine. They can be a safe and inexpensive alternative to over-the-counter products, with minimal side effects.
Here are 20 natural laxatives you may want to try.
Fiber is a natural treatment and one of the first lines of defense against constipation.
Soluble fiber absorbs water to form a gel, which can aid in forming softer stools to ease constipation (8).
Most varieties of berries are relatively high in fiber, making them a great choice as a mild natural laxative.
The American Dietetic Association recommends 25 grams of fiber per day for women and 38 grams of fiber for men to add bulk to stool and prevent chronic disease (12).
Berries contain two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber, such as that in chia seeds, absorbs water in the gut to form a gel-like substance that helps soften stool (13).
Insoluble fiber does not absorb water, but moves through the body intact, increasing the bulk of stool for easier passage (14).
Including a few varieties of berries in your diet is one way to increase your fiber intake and take advantage of their natural laxative properties.
Legumes are a family of edible plants that include beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas and peanuts.
Legumes are high in fiber, which can encourage regularity.
Eating legumes can help increase your body's production of butyric acid, a type of short-chain fatty acid that may act as a natural laxative.
Studies show that butyric acid could aid in the treatment of constipation by increasing the movement of the digestive tract (17).
It also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent to reduce the intestinal inflammation that may be associated with some digestive disorders, like Crohn's disease or inflammatory bowel disease (17).
Not only that, but flaxseeds also have natural laxative properties and are an effective treatment for both constipation and diarrhea.
A 2015 animal study showed that flaxseed oil increased stool frequency in guinea pigs. It also had an anti-diarrheal effect and was able to reduce diarrhea by up to 84% (20).
Flaxseeds contain a good mix of both soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps reduce intestinal transit time and add bulk to stool (21).
One tablespoon (10 grams) of flaxseeds provides 2 grams of insoluble fiber, plus 1 gram of soluble fiber (19).
Kefir is a fermented milk product.
It contains probiotics, a type of beneficial gut bacteria with a variety of health benefits, including improving immune function and boosting digestive health (22).
Consuming probiotics through either food or supplements can increase regularity while also improving stool consistency and speeding up intestinal transit (23).
Kefir, in particular, has been shown to add moisture and bulk to stool (24).
A 2014 study looked at the effects of kefir on 20 participants with constipation.
After consuming 17 ounces (500 ml) per day for four weeks, participants had an increase in stool frequency, improvements in consistency and a decrease in laxative use (25).
Produced from castor beans, castor oil has a long history of use as a natural laxative.
After castor oil is consumed, it releases ricinoleic acid, a type of unsaturated fatty acid that's responsible for its laxative effect.
Ricinoleic acid works by activating a specific receptor in the digestive tract that increases the movement of the intestinal muscles to induce a bowel movement (26).
One study showed that castor oil was able to alleviate constipation symptoms by softening stool consistency, reducing straining during defecation and decreasing the feeling of incomplete evacuation (27).
Leafy greens like spinach, kale and cabbage work in a few different ways to improve regularity and prevent constipation.
First, they are very nutrient-dense, meaning they provide a good amount of vitamins, minerals and fiber with relatively few calories.
Each cup (67 grams) of kale, for example, provides 1.3 grams of fiber to help increase regularity and only has about 33 calories (28).
Some studies have shown that low intake of magnesium could be associated with constipation, so ensuring adequate intake is crucial for maintaining regularity (30).
Extracted from the plant Senna alexandrina, senna is an herb that is often used as a natural stimulant laxative.
Senna is found in many common over-the-counter products, like Ex-Lax, Senna-Lax and Senokot.
The constipation-relieving effects of senna are attributed to the plant's sennoside content.
Sennosides are compounds that work by accelerating the movement of the digestive system to stimulate a bowel movement. They also increase fluid absorption in the colon to aid in the passage of stool (31).
Plus, they're full of pectin, a type of soluble fiber that can act as a laxative.
One study showed that pectin was able to speed up transit time in the colon. It also acted as a prebiotic by increasing the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut to promote digestive health (33).
Another study gave rats apple fiber for two weeks before administering morphine to cause constipation. They found that the apple fiber prevented constipation by stimulating movement in the digestive tract and increasing stool frequency (34).
Some research has found that consuming olive oil could be an effective way to alleviate constipation.
It functions as a lubricant laxative, providing a coating in the rectum that allows for easier passage, while also stimulating the small intestine to speed up transit (35).
In studies, olive oil has been shown to work well in both spurring bowel movements and improving the symptoms of constipation (36).
In one study, researchers combined olive oil with a traditional colon-cleansing formula and found that the formula was more effective when paired with olive oil than with other laxatives, like magnesium hydroxide (37).
Rhubarb contains a compound known as sennoside A, which provides some potent laxative properties.
Sennoside A decreases the levels of AQP3, a type of protein that regulates the water content in stool.
This leads to a laxative effect by increasing the absorption of water to soften the stool and ease bowel movements (38).
Rhubarb also contains a good amount of fiber to help promote regularity, with 2.2 grams of fiber in each cup (122 grams) (39).
Aloe vera latex, a gel that comes from the inner lining of the aloe plant's leaves, is frequently used as a treatment for constipation.
It gets its laxative effect from anthraquinone glycosides, compounds that draw water into the intestines and stimulate the movement of the digestive tract (40).
One study confirmed the effectiveness of aloe vera by creating a preparation using celandin, psyllium and aloe vera. They found that this mixture was able to effectively soften stools and increase bowel movement frequency (41).
Produced from the outer layers of the oat grain, oat bran is high in both soluble and insoluble fiber, making it a good choice as a natural laxative.
In fact, just 1 cup (94 grams) of raw oat bran packs in a whopping 14 grams of fiber (42).
A 2009 study evaluated the effectiveness of oat bran in the treatment of constipation by using it instead of laxatives in a geriatric hospital.
They found participants tolerated oat bran well. It helped them maintain their body weight and allowed 59% of participants to stop using laxatives, making oat bran a good alternative to over-the-counter products (43).
Prunes are probably one of the most well-known natural laxatives out there.
Sorbitol is poorly absorbed and acts as an osmotic agent, bringing water into the intestines, which helps induce bowel movements (46).
Kiwifruit has been shown to have laxative properties, making it a convenient way to ease constipation.
This is mostly due to its high fiber content. A cup (177 grams) of kiwifruit contains 5.3 grams of fiber, covering up to 21% of the recommended daily intake (49).
It works by increasing the movement of the digestive tract to stimulate a bowel movement (51).
One four-week study looked at the effects of kiwifruit on both constipated and healthy participants. It found that using kiwifruit as a natural laxative helped alleviate constipation by speeding up transit time in the gut (52).
Frequently found in pharmacies as an over-the-counter supplement, magnesium citrate is a powerful natural laxative.
Magnesium citrate increases the amount of water in the intestinal tract, which causes a bowel movement (1).
This is largely due to the effects of coffee on gastrin, a hormone that is released after eating. Gastrin is responsible for the secretion of gastric acid, which helps break down food in the stomach (59).
Gastrin has also been shown to increase the movement of the intestinal muscles, which can help speed up intestinal transit and induce a bowel movement (60).
One study gave participants 3.4 ounces (100 ml) of coffee, then measured their gastrin levels.
Compared to the control group, gastrin levels were 1.7 times higher for participants who drank decaffeinated coffee and 2.3 times higher for those who drank caffeinated coffee (61).
In fact, other studies have shown that caffeinated coffee can stimulate your digestive tract as much as a meal and up to 60% more than water (62).
Derived from the husk and seeds of the plant Plantago ovata, psyllium is a type of fiber with laxative properties.
Though it contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, its high content of soluble fiber is what makes it especially effective in relieving constipation (63).
Soluble fiber works by absorbing water and forming a gel, which can soften stool and make it easier to pass (13).
Psyllium has even been shown to be more effective than some prescription laxatives.
One study compared the effects of psyllium to those of docusate sodium, a laxative medication, in the treatment of 170 adults with constipation.
The researchers found that psyllium had a greater effect in softening stool and increasing the frequency of evacuation (64).
Water is essential for staying hydrated as well as maintaining regularity and preventing constipation.
Research shows that staying hydrated can help alleviate constipation by improving the consistency of stool, making it easier to pass (65).
It can also amplify the effects of other natural laxatives, like fiber.
In one study, 117 participants with chronic constipation were given a diet consisting of 25 grams of fiber per day. In addition to the increased fiber, half of the participants were also instructed to drink 2 liters of water per day.
After two months, both groups had an increase in stool frequency and less dependence on laxatives, but the effect was even greater for the group drinking more water (66).
Excess consumption of some types of sugar substitutes may have a laxative effect.
This is because they pass through the gut mostly unabsorbed, drawing water into the intestines and speeding up transit in the gut (67).
This process is especially true for sugar alcohols, which are poorly absorbed in the digestive tract.
Lactitol, a type of sugar alcohol derived from milk sugar, has actually been investigated for its potential use in the treatment of chronic constipation (68).
Some case studies have even linked the excessive consumption of sugar-free chewing gum containing sorbitol, another type of sugar alcohol, to diarrhea (69).
Xylitol is another common sugar alcohol that acts as a laxative.
It's usually found in small amounts in diet drinks and sugar-free gums. If you consume it in large amounts, however, it could draw water into the intestines, inducing a bowel movement or even causing diarrhea (70, 71).
Large amounts of the sugar alcohol erythritol could also have a laxative effect in the same way, spurring a bowel movement by bringing large amounts of water into the intestines (67).
There are many natural laxatives that can help keep you regular by increasing stool frequency and improving stool consistency.
In addition to using these natural laxatives, make sure you stay well-hydrated, follow a healthy diet and make time for regular physical activity.
These steps will help prevent constipation and keep your digestive system healthy.