Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.

mbg Health Contributor

By Gretchen Lidicker, M.S.

mbg Health Contributor

Gretchen Lidicker earned her master’s degree in physiology with a focus on alternative medicine from Georgetown University. She is the author of “CBD Oil Everyday Secrets” and “Magnesium Everyday Secrets.”

Hand pulling last square of toilet paper from the roll

March 6, 2023

Whether you’re having a stressful week or are on vacation, we all need a little help getting things moving every now and then. Taking over-the-counter (OTC) laxatives is a quick, popular way to relieve constipation. But what are the side effects?

A new study tells us that regularly using laxatives may harm our health and increase our likelihood of developing dementia. Here’s what to know.


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Laxatives and brain health. 

The study published in Neurology analyzed data from more than 500,000 participants from the UK Biobank with a mean age of 56. The researchers looked for connections between self-reported laxative use and specific health outcomes—in this case, all-cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular dementia—about a decade later.

The results showed that 0.4% of participants who did not use laxatives regularly developed dementia, compared to 1.3% of participants who did regularly use laxatives. The researchers defined “regular” users of laxatives as people who used laxatives “most of the days” in the last four weeks. 

This number—1.3%—might not seem huge. But when you consider the fact that $1.5 billion1 was spent on OTC laxatives in 2019, and that 40% of people1 with constipation are self-treating the condition with OTC drugs, it’s a whole lot more substantial and concerning. 


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Why would these medications increase dementia risk? 

You might be wondering what constipation has to do with long-term brain health. The answer lies in the microbiome-gut-brain axis hypothesis, which was first described as early as the 1930s.

This hypothesis states that there is a bidirectional relationship between the central nervous system, which involves the brain, and the enteric nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that lives in the gut. It postulates that there’s a link between cognition and emotion (aka, what your brain is up to) and what’s going on in the intestines (aka, what your gut is up to). 

This is far from the first study to establish this connection. Other studies have shown that there’s a link between anxiety and gut health, inflammatory bowel disease and dementia2, and cognitive decline and microbiome alterations3. In other words, this is just another piece of evidence that the microbiome-gut-brain axis hypothesis is true and that it affects our health on a daily basis.

Safer ways to get things moving fast.

There are plenty of other ways to support bowel regularity and comfort without needing to reach for laxatives. Here are a few science-backed tips for promoting gut health: 

  • Exercise: Getting your body moving can really help get things moving, it turns out. One analysis4 of randomized controlled trials concluded that “exercise may be a feasible and effective treatment option for patients with constipation.” 
  • Probiotics: Probiotic supplements supply your gut with healthy bacteria. Depending on the bacterial strain you’re taking (Bifidobacterium lactis 420 is one of the most widely researched for gut health), probiotics can promote bowel regularity and comfort in a noticeable way. One study even showed5 that probiotics may help improve whole gut transit time, stool frequency, and stool consistency, too. Try one of these nine probiotic supplements to get started.
  • Fiber: One of the best ways to get your digestion back on track is to try increasing your daily intake of fiber, which draws water into the intestines and keeps you regular. Gut health experts recommend high-fiber foods like leafy green vegetables; brown rice; whole grains; beans; certain nuts like almonds, pecans, or walnuts; and foods like raspberries, avocados, lentils, and apples. Supplementing with a high-quality fiber powder is also an option.
  • Stress relief: A perfect example of the gut-brain connection is the link between stress and constipation. Studies show6 constipation rates are significantly higher in those exposed to stressful events. Great stress-relief practices include meditation, yoga, and journaling
  • Coffee: Studies show that warm beverages are great for stimulating bowel movements, and coffee may be particularly effective. One study7 showed that regular and decaf options can help you find relief. 


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The takeaway.

A new study found a link between frequent over-the-counter laxative use and dementia. If you experience regular constipation, you may want to consider lifestyle changes that can help, such as increasing your fiber intake, getting plenty of probiotics, and getting your body moving.