What to Know About Natural Laxatives

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on February 26, 2024
8 min read

If you’ve ever been constipated, you know that you’d do just about anything to relieve your painful symptoms. Laxatives help move your bowels more easily or prepare for procedures such as colonoscopies.

Your diet can contribute to constipation, but certain foods and natural remedies can help ease it.

Over-the-counter laxatives can provide quick results, but what if you’re looking for a natural alternative?

There are several ways that laxatives can work:

  • Fiber-rich laxatives bulk up your stool, drawing water and making stools larger and easier to pass.
  • Stool softeners make bowel movements less strained by softening hard stools.
  • Lubricant laxatives coat your colon, prevent it from drawing water from your stool, and give waste a smoother passage through your digestive tract.


Stimulant laxatives

Stimulant laxatives trigger your colon muscles to push stools out. Natural stimulant laxatives can contain the fruit and leaves of senna, a plant. Castor oil is another natural stimulant laxative. Because senna-containing laxatives take about 8 hours to work, it’s a good idea to take them before bedtime. Side effects usually include mild cramping and diarrhea.

Natural stimulant laxatives are not recommended for long-term use. You can build up a tolerance for them, needing higher doses for effectiveness.

Herbal stimulant laxatives

Ma Zi Ren Wan (MZRW, also known as hemp seed pill or hemp seed formula) has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat constipation for around 2,000 years. It is made up of six herbs. Several active ingredients in MZRW can trigger muscle contractions in your colon. Studies have found MZRW to be as effective as senna in emptying your bowels.

Anthraquinone, a medicinal ingredient in certain herbs, is known to have a laxative effect. In addition to senna, other herbs containing anthraquinone include:

  • Aloe
  • Rhubarb, an ingredient in MZRW
  • Cascara sagrada
  • Alder, glossy, and breaking buckthorn bark
  • Cassia pulp

Osmotic laxatives

These laxatives work by drawing fluid into your intestines so that your stool passes more easily. However, this type of laxative can lead to fluid and electrolyte imbalances when not used correctly. Follow the instructions carefully and don’t exceed the recommended dose. Examples of osmotic laxatives include:

  • Colyte
  • Epsom salt
  • Golytely
  • Lactulose
  • Milk of Magnesia
  • Miralax
  • Sorbitol‌

Stool softeners/lubricant laxatives

Stool softeners are emollient (lubricant) laxatives, which work by making your stools softer so they are easier to pass without straining. Lubricant laxatives coat your colon, prevent it from drawing water from your stool, and ensure a smoother passage of waste through your intestines. Examples of lubricant laxatives are mineral oil and Colace.

Bulk-forming laxatives

These laxatives bulk up your stool so that it can pass more easily. These are also an excellent source of fiber for your diet. But you shouldn’t become reliant on them because they can block your body from absorbing other much-needed nutrients.

Saline laxatives

Saline laxatives, such as magnesium citrate, are natural stool softeners that work by drawing water into your colon to soften your stool. They also cause your intestinal muscles to contract.

Saline laxatives are natural laxatives that work fast, triggering a bowel movement in as few as 30 minutes. Bulk-forming and stool-softener laxatives can take the longest (up to 3 days) to act but are considered the gentlest.

Timelines for other laxatives:

  • Lubricants: 6-8 hours
  • Stimulants: 6-12 hours

The best natural laxatives are in the foods you eat. Eating fiber-rich foods can help keep your bowel movements regular and avoid constipation. Foods can contain two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble.

Your digestive system is unable to break down the insoluble fiber found in foods such as popcorn or the edible skin of fruits and vegetables. Soluble fiber, which dissolves in water, forms a gel that acts as a natural stool softener in your digestive tract. It's found in foods such as whole grains and cooked vegetables.

Foods that can serve as natural laxative remedies include:

Chia seeds. Add a couple of tablespoons of this superfood into yogurt, smoothies, oatmeal, or salad. Or, you can stir the seeds in 8-10 ounces of water to use as a laxative. As the seeds absorb the water, the mixture turns into a gel-like stool softener.

Berries. Berries are fiber-rich, and raspberries are a particularly good source of fiber. One cup of raspberries provides 8 grams of fiber.

Legumes. Legumes contain a form of starch called resistant starch, which acts like insoluble fiber in your digestive tract. Nearly half the starch in legumes is resistant to digestion.

Flaxseed. A source of both insoluble and soluble fibers, flaxseed is a natural stool softener. One tablespoon has 5 grams of fiber. Add flaxseed to baked goods such as muffins or cookies, or mix it in water or a hot beverage.

Kefir. Made of fermented milk and other ingredients, kefir is full of probiotics. A study proved kefir helps speed stools through your colon, improves the frequency and bulk of bowel movements, and reduces the use of laxatives. Use kefir as you would milk -- in cereals, smoothies, or on its own.

Leafy greens. Greens such as kale, spinach, and collards are rich in fiber and promote healthy bacteria in your colon.

Prunes. Prunes and prune juice are proven remedies for constipation. Researchers believe it's the healthy amount of sorbitol and fiber in prune juice that makes it a natural laxative drink.

Fruits. The skins of fruits such as apples, pears, and mangoes contain insoluble fiber. Most people eat peeled kiwi, but its skin is edible as well and boasts 50% of the fruit's fiber content. Just be sure to wash any fruit before eating it unpeeled.

Coffee. Acids in both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee stimulate a hormone called gastrin, which makes the muscles of your stomach contract, starting the process of moving waste through your colon.

What causes constipation? Water and fiber are the primary ingredients for regular bowel movements. When your diet lacks water or fiber, your bowel movements slow down and lead to constipation.

While some foods help you prevent constipation, other foods can lead to it. These include:

  • Processed foods
  • Dairy products
  • White bread‌
  • Certain types of meat

Constipation may also be a side effect of some medications. If your doctor prescribes you a new medication and you begin to experience constipation, talk to your doctor about your concerns. Your doctor may be able to give recommendations for natural laxatives or prescribe a different medication for your other health conditions.

Everyone has different frequencies for bowel movements, so what is considered normal for someone else may not be normal for you. Listen to your body and know the signs of constipation so you can prevent it before it starts.

Signs that you are constipated include:

  • Having fewer bowel movements than usual
  • An inability to push stool out
  • Pain with bowel movements
  • Feeling too full or bloated
  • Straining to pass your stool
  • Bright red blood in your stool or when wiping

Healthy eating and drinking habits are a good way to prevent constipation. If you have constipation and resolve the issue by using a natural laxative, take preventative measures to ensure you don’t get constipated again. These include:

  • Prioritize fiber in your diet: If it helps, write out a list of fiber-rich foods that you like. Include these foods in both meals and snacks each day to ensure you get fiber consistently. Fruits and vegetables are great because they have both fiber and water content. They keep you hydrated and provide the bulk your stool needs to continue moving through your body.
  • Remember to drink water all day: Keep a bottle of water with you, and be mindful of taking sips even if you don’t feel thirsty at that moment. Limiting sugary drinks such as soda will also help prevent constipation.

Natural laxatives aren’t addictive. Using stimulant laxatives too often may make your body reliant on them. Laxatives allow stools to pass with little effort and may cause your muscles to weaken over time. This turns into a negative downward cycle, making you depend more and more on stimulant laxatives.

Natural laxatives are better for you. When you turn to foods that have laxative properties, you benefit from additional fiber and nutrients. By choosing foods that help you pass stool more easily, you also establish healthier habits that may help you prevent constipation in the future.

Natural laxatives may not work as well. If you have severe constipation, a natural laxative may not work for you. There are times when a stimulant laxative is necessary for you to pass an extremely difficult stool.

Senna and laxatives containing it can be toxic to your liver in higher doses and with extended use. However, this is rare and the issue usually goes away as soon as you stop taking it. It can also be dangerous to use laxatives if you have a bowel obstruction.

If you get badly constipated, then make changes in your diet to prevent future constipation. Talk to your doctor about your concerns to be sure that you don't have an underlying health issue causing constipation.

Eating foods rich in fiber is a good first step in preventing and relieving constipation. If you haven't been getting enough fiber, increase your intake gradually to avoid cramping, bloating, or gas. Use laxatives (natural or not) sparingly, and stop taking them when your bowel movements improve. If you're still constipated after a week, contact your doctor.

What are some natural laxatives that work fast?

A saline laxative, such as magnesium citrate, can work in as few as 30 minutes. Coffee has been known to work quickly as well.

How can I loosen my bowels naturally?

Eat fiber-rich foods such as unpeeled fruits, leafy greens, chia seeds, legumes, and prunes. As you increase your fiber intake, drink plenty of water to help the fiber work in your digestive tract.

What simple trick can help empty your bowels?

With a footstool or another item to raise your feet and knees, sit on the toilet with your back straight and then lean forward with your arms resting on your knees. Take relaxed and easy breaths. Do this with each urge to move your bowels. After you finish, tighten your anal muscles to help close your bowels.

What is a good instant laxative?

For foods that act as natural laxatives, try prunes or prune juice. Saline laxatives, which soften your stools and help the intestines contract, are fast-acting.