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5 herbs instead of laxatives

  • Helen Barnett
    Helen Barnett

    Helen is a medical herbalist, Yoga therapist and Thai bodywork practitioner. Following graduating with a BSc Hons in Western Herbal Medicine from the University of Westminster in 2009, Helen practiced as a herbalist seeing clients in clinics in the UK for over 10 years, and also spent time working as a lecturer and clinical supervisor for the Betonica School of Herbal Medicine.

    Through her own health journey Helen has found the tools of Yoga and herbs, and a sense of connection to nature, to be beneficial in carving a way to a healthier and more balanced lifestyle, and her passion is sharing this to empower people with the skills, knowledge, and discernment to improve their health, wellbeing, and quality of life in ways which are sustainable to each individual.

    Helen facilitates herbal medicine courses and workshops which share the knowledge and wisdom of herbs, interwoven with Yoga practices and self-reflection to better understand our unique and ever-changing needs, and how to best support them.

    Helen also teaches therapeutic Yoga workshops, offers private Yoga therapy sessions and healing bodywork, and is a writer sharing the scientific knowledge and traditional wisdom of herbs, and insights on healthy living practices through her brand HB Healthy.

    The essence of what Helen offers is bringing people back to their essential nature, through re-connecting with their own bodies and the wider nature surrounding them, to re-establish a state of inner harmony and balance, from where they can live a healthy vibrant life, whatever it brings.

  • 8:58 reading time (ish)
  • Digestion & Nutrition

Written by Helen Barnett

Many of us will experience a bout of constipation at some point, especially after periods of over-indulgence with rich foods, physical inactivity, or a change to our usual routine. The discomfort often associated with this makes the desire for a quick solution such as laxatives quite understandable!

Constipation tends to be classified as (1):

  • Passing a stool less than three times per week
  • If the stool is often hard, dry and difficult to pass 
  • If there is straining or pain when going to the toilet  

However, herbalists would consider it unhealthy if a stool is not passed at least once per day, since emptying the bowels is a major route for the elimination of waste products from the body (2), and regular easy-to-pass bowel movements are considered an indication of healthy digestive function.

5 herbs instead of laxatives

Although the cause of constipation may not always be clear, it is often caused by lifestyle factors, such as a diet insufficient in fibre, dehydration, and too much time spent sitting down (1). Stress is also a major factor which contributes as this takes our body’s priorities away from the “rest and digest” mode with the parasympathetic nervous system, to “fight or flight” mode with the sympathetic nervous system.

There is a variety of laxatives which are widely available and function in different ways. They are generally suggested to be tried in the following order if the prior one does not work (3). Bulking laxatives (fybogel and methylcellulose) which increase the bulk of the stool which in turn applies pressure to the bowel wall stimulating its activity. Osmotic laxatives (Duphalac, Lactugal, Movicol, Laxido, CosmoCol, Molaxole and Molative) which draw water from the rest of the body helping to soften the stool and making it easier to pass. Stimulant laxatives (Dulcolax, Senokot) stimulate the muscles lining the gut aiding the movement of waste products along the gastrointestinal tract and passing of the stool.

However, despite the temptation to reach for laxatives during times of constipation, they are only really recommended as an option after relevant lifestyle measures have been adjusted. This includes eating sufficient fibre (particularly from vegetables and fruit), ensuring you are well hydrated (with water rather than alcohol or sugary drinks), reducing alcohol consumption, and increasing physical activity levels such as going for a daily walk (1).

Whilst laxatives can be a quick fix and may provide the welcome relief from constipation we are looking for, they should be taken prudently and only when needed as a short-term measure in most cases. Despite their common use, taking laxatives long-term can prove problematic. One of the main issues with taking laxatives long-term is that their over-use can lead to a somewhat ‘lazy’ or atonic bowel resulting in a dependence on laxatives to be able to pass a stool at all.

Furthermore, taking laxatives generally speeds up the faecal transit time, and a rapid faecal transit may rush some nutrients beyond their optimal absorptive timespan, meaning that we miss out on absorbing the full range of nutrients from food. Another factor to consider is for those taking prescribed medications, in that long-term use of laxatives can mean that some drugs are not absorbed due to the fast transit time. Additionally, certain laxatives can interfere with the absorption of drugs by binding to them and carrying them out of the body before absorption has taken place (4).

The good news is that certain herbs can help to readjust the balance in the body so that passing a smooth stool becomes a regular habit, which is easy to do!

When taking herbs for any health issues, the primary goal is always, where possible, to restore healthy function of the body’s systems, and constipation is no exception to this.

A general herbal approach to get the bowels moving may look at providing support in the following ways (2):

  • Improve liver function to promote bile production which will stimulate healthy digestive processes: herbs include dandelion root and milk thistle.
  • Increase stool bulk: through diet and herbs such as slippery elm and psyllium husks.
  • Improve motor function or peristalsis (movement of the gastrointestinal tract which helps stools to ‘pass’ out of the body without straining), improve gastrointestinal lubrication with mucilage: linseeds, aloe vera juice.
  • Gentle laxatives: include licorice and yellow dock.
  • Stronger anthraquinone-laxatives* are a last resort: include senna, cascara, aloe resins.

Here we explore 5 herbs which are well worth trying if you are considering taking laxatives.

Helen Barnett

Helen is a medical herbalist, Yoga therapist and Thai bodywork practitioner. Following graduating with a BSc Hons in Western Herbal Medicine from the University of Westminster in 2009, Helen... Read more

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