Constipation is a common pregnancy complication. Most women can relieve it by staying active and increasing their fiber and water intake. However, if it persists, the doctor may prescribe laxatives. But is it safe to take laxatives during pregnancy?
Laxatives or purgatives are medicines used to treat constipation. You can get them over-the-counter (OTC) under different brand names. However, medical guidance is vital to select a safe laxative to avert any side effects and complications.
Keep reading as we tell you about laxatives, their safety during pregnancy, their possible side effects, and some safe laxatives you may try after consulting your doctor.
What Are Laxatives?
Laxatives are drugs that help in relieving constipation by inducing a bowel movement or loosening the stools. They contain chemicals that help stool motility, frequency and bulk.
The laxatives are available in the form of pills, capsules, foods, gums, and liquids for oral consumption or through the rectum in the form of enemas and suppositories (1).
Is It Safe To Take Laxatives During Pregnancy?
Usually doctors advice natural remedies and probiotics (2) to improve bowel function. If these remedies seem to be ineffective, then the doctor would prescribe mild laxatives, as the second line of treatment (3).
Among the various mild laxatives, bulk-forming laxatives such as Metamucil (psyllium hydrophilic mucilloid) are not absorbed and are not known to increase the risk of malformations in the fetus. Therefore, these are considered safer than the others (2).
Emollient laxatives like mineral oil and stimulant laxatives like castor oil must be avoided during pregnancy due to their potential for maternal and fetal morbidity (4).
It must be noted that these laxatives only help temporarily relieve constipation; your doctor will advise you to change your diet and lifestyle to retain your natural bowel movements.
Prolonged usage of laxatives can result in dehydration and create an imbalance of mineral and salt levels in your body.
Laxatives Safe To Take During Pregnancy
1. Bulk-forming laxatives
Also called fiber supplements, they work similar to fiber in your diet. They add bulk to the stools by helping them retain liquid for an easy bowel movement. They take around 12 to 24 hours to work and are unlikely to cause any harm to your pregnancy since they do not get into the blood.
Psyllium (Metamucil), methylcellulose (Citrucel), isphagula, carboxymethyl-cellulose, and sterculia are some of the bulk-forming laxatives.
2. Stool softener laxatives
They cause water and fats to penetrate the stools, thus encouraging it to move quickly through the gastrointestinal tract. They take 12 to 72 hours to work. Multiple studies have not associated any harmful effects and thus these laxatives are considered safe during pregnancy.
Docusate sodium (Colace) and Dicoto are such medications.
3. Stimulant laxatives
They stimulate the intestinal wall lining to speed up the bowel movements. They give quick relief within 6 to 12 hours. There is no risk to the baby as the absorption is minimal. However, long-term use can have some side effects such as electrolyte imbalances on the mother.
Senna (Senokot) and Bisacodyl (Correctol) are considered safe in small doses.
4. Osmotic laxatives
They soften the stools by drawing fluid into the gastrointestinal tract from the surrounding tissues. They take around 30 minutes to six hours for causing an effect. Their use is not associated with any adverse effects on the baby. Long-term use might affect the mother in the same way as the stimulant laxatives do.
Sodium bisphosphate (OsmoPrep), magnesium hydroxide (milk of magnesia), sugars including polyethylene glycol (Miralax) and lactulose are some effective osmotics.
In spite of their effectiveness, laxatives are prescribed only as a second option because of some side effects.
What Could Be The Side Effects Of Laxatives During Pregnancy?
Like any other medications, laxatives also have some side effects, which usually depend on the type of laxative you are taking.
The common side effects include (3):
- Abdominal cramps
- Dark urine
Excessive or prolonged intake of laxatives could result in the following side effects.
- Reduced absorption of nutrition and other medicines into the blood as laxatives increase the rate of food passage through the intestinal tract.
- Lower levels of magnesium salt in the blood. One study has found that mothers who had docusate sodium when pregnant had babies with low magnesium levels and suffered temporary jitteriness (6).
Therefore, talk to your doctor before using laxatives during pregnancy.
Next, we answer a few commonly raised queries.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can laxatives cause miscarriage?
2. Can the use of laxatives during pregnancy cause birth defects?
Laxatives are not known to increase the probability of birth defects or other major pregnancy issues.
Before using laxatives during pregnancy, it is advised that you consult your doctor or gynecologist and ensure that it will not bring about any complications in the pregnancy. Try incorporating fiber-rich food into your diet, and bring specific changes in your lifestyle to help improve your bowel functions and reduce the chances of constipation. However, if these remedies do not work, try using laxatives that are safe to be used during pregnancy for the recommended number of days so that they will not harm you or your baby.
This post is for informational purposes only and is not a replacement for a doctor’s consultation. Do not use any medication without talking to your doctor.
2. Sana Zahoor et.al, Constipation in pregnancy: Causes and remedies; Virtual University of Pakistan.
3. Magan Trottier, MSc, Aida Erebara, MD, and Pina Bozzo; Treating constipation during pregnancy; The College of Family Physicians of Canada
4. Jessica Servey, Jennifer Chang; Over-the-counter medications in pregnancy; American Family Physician.
5. Meredith Portalatin & Nathaniel Winstead; Medical management of constipation (2012)
6. Prescribing in Pregnancy, Fourth edition; Perpustakaan Pusat Universitas Pancasila; Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (2013)
7. Gulsah Gurol Arslan, Ismet Eser; An examination of the effect of castor oil packs on constipation in the elderly; Complementary Therapies In Clinical Practice (2011)