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Can't poop? These over-the-counter remedies might help move things along.

By Kate Bratskeir
December 19, 2018

Backed up, irregular, clogged—however you decide to describe it, constipation is uncomfortable. You might realize you’re experiencing the condition if you’re pooping less often than usual, although everyone’s different: People may have as many as three bowel movements a day or as few as three a week, according to the Mayo Clinic. Experiencing dry stools that are too hard to pass may also be a sign of constipation, Lisa Ganjhu, DO, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Health, tells Health.

There are plenty of treatments available at the pharmacy that may provide relief. A stool softener, also known as an emollient laxative, is a type of laxative that may help by re-hydrating or moisturizing the stool, making it easier to pass without straining muscles. Stool softeners contain the active ingredient is docusate sodium, which “works by allowing more water to be absorbed by the stool,” says Ganjhu. (Stool softeners should be avoided if your stools are already too soft, she adds.)

Not all laxatives are stool softeners, however. Some are stimulants that work by triggering contractions of the muscles of the intestines. A lubricant laxative, which is made of mineral oil, helps move things along more smoothly. “Mineral oil literally adds oil to the stool to soften hard stools and make the walls of the colon ‘slippery’ for the stool to pass,” says Ganjhu. Bulk-forming laxatives, a different category, are absorbed by the intestines and create a bulky mass that moves through the bowels more smoothly.

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However, research suggests docusate sodium might not be your most effective bet when it comes to constipation relief. In one 2013 study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 35 patients were prescribed docusate sodium, while 39 patients were given a placebo. No significant differences in stool volume, frequency, or consistency were found. A 2001 study published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics prescribed 170 adult patients with chronic constipation either 5.1 g of psyllium—an over-the-counter soluble fiber used as a gentle, bulk-forming laxative—twice a day or 100 mg of docusate sodium twice a day. The patients that were treated with psyllium experienced greater stool frequency, water content, and output.

Before you look for over-the-counter alleviation, you may want to try natural constipation remedies first. Drinking more water “will increase water in the stool,” Ganjhu says, making poop easier to pass. She also recommends eating water-rich fruits like oranges, watermelon, and strawberries to help bulk up and soften the stool.

Ganjhu says she’ll start her patients on stool softeners if they are experiencing "hard stools or pain with [the] passage of stools.” For those having a tough time pooping, she works with her own kind of “algorithm.” First, she'll suggest a bulk-forming laxative in conjunction with water, exercise, and an increase in fruit and veggie consumption. If that doesn’t work, she’ll recommend an osmotic laxative, which works by pulling water back into the colon to soften the stool. If this fails, prescription drugs may be necessary.

If you're looking for a little help from something OTC, here are some top-selling picks from Amazon in each category.

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