Constipation can be a problem that impairs quality of life, but beware of laxatives used to relieve this condition. In fact, if used in excess and regularly, laxatives can even increase the risk of developing dementia over the years. This emerges from a very recent scientific research that appeared in the journal Neurology thanks to a collaboration between Chinese scientists from the Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology, British scientists from the University of Cambridge and American scientists from Harvard Medical School (Yang et al, Neurology, Feb 2023).
Dementia and gut health, there is a link
Science is using many resources to try to understand how to prevent and fight dementia. In particular, all those risk factors defined as modifiable are of considerable importance in the fight against dementia. These are habits, lifestyles or diets that can be corrected, in order to reduce the risk of getting dementia in the years to come. The connection between the gut and the brain is known from previous studies, so much so that scientists have even given it a name, calling it the gut-brain axis. This means that an alteration of the gut microbiota can have repercussions on the brain, since it can increase inflammation and free radical damage, thus paving the way, in the long run, for an increased risk of neurodegeneration. For this reason it is legitimate to hypothesize that the use of laxatives, which act on the intestinal level, modifying the microbiota and increasing the production of toxins, could increase the risk of dementia. To shed light on this aspect, Chinese, British and American scientists have developed the research we are talking about today.
Too many laxatives increase dementia risk, study
Scientists analyzed data from more than 500,000 people in the UK Biobank database. All the volunteers were followed up for 10 years and during the study they had to provide data regarding lifestyle, any use of laxatives and health status. What has emerged is that regular use of laxatives, understood as the use of laxatives for most days of the week, increases by 50% the risk of developing all forms of dementia, including Alzheimer's and vascular dementia. The study shows that this association is observed with different types of laxatives, both stimulant and osmotic, but the use of osmotic laxatives increases the risk of dementia the most. Osmotic laxatives act by attracting abundant water into the intestinal lumen and accelerate intestinal transit. Osmotic laxatives are generally prepared based on lactulose, polyethylene glycol, magnesium salts, mannite and sorbitol. Stimulant laxatives, as the name suggests, stimulate intestinal peristalsis due to their irritating action on the intestinal mucosa. Laxatives of this type can also be natural substances such as senna, cascara, alder buckthorn or rhubarb, but also chemical compounds such as bisacolide and sodium picosulphate.
Conclusions and tips
The study shows that a regular and continuous use of laxatives over time can increase the risk of dementia. Therefore, it is important to avoid prolonged and frequent use of over-the-counter laxatives, both osmotic and stimulants, which can also cause addiction. To counteract constipation, however, we can use natural and safe methods, such as introducing more fibers into the diet, eating more fruit, such as kiwi fruits, and vegetables, but also whole grains such as oats or barley, legumes, dried fruit and seeds. It is also important to keep hydrated and drink water or herbal tea during the day. Not only that, you can also use probiotics to improve intestinal function. Also beware of possible intolerances that can cause constipation.