Lessons From a 4-Day Experiment With Laxative Teas

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The problem with clichés isn’t just that they’re lazy, it’s that we tend to forget the original meaning. Dumpster fires have become such a common refrain, I fear a nation of amateur firemen wouldn’t know what to do if their cubicle trashcan lit aflame; drinking the Kool-Aid, when you think about it, doesn’t sound half bad. But of all my oft-used, under-thought clichés, one I never expected to directly confront was “shitting the bed.” Or, in this case, “shitting the leather seat of an airplane in the middle of first class.”

For the first 28 years of my life, I was able to excavate my bowels like clockwork. But somewhere around the time Chipotle started offering a burrito-rewards program, my body began retaliating. Things got … slower. Having only ever referred to constipation as a punch line, I first devoted lucrative amounts of time trying to convince my gynecologist I had stomach cancer. Too young to die, too proud to take Metamucil, I instead turned to the earthbound gaia’s designated cure-all: laxative teas.

While the Kardashians and lesser reality stars have made detox teas like Fit Tee and Bootea the celebrity shill du jour, herbal laxative teas have been kicking around the wellness aisles for far longer, intended primarily for clogged pipes rather than meaningful weight loss. The most common laxative teas contain copious amounts of senna root, which works along the same general principles of toothpaste management: The sennosides irritate your colon just enough to get it contracting again to squeeze the, er, backlog out. Though laxative teas do help you drop a few immediate pounds, the actual “detox” aspects are murky at best; all you’re losing from your small intestine is undigested water and oil — the dreaded “water weight.” The rest of your toxins have been long absorbed before they even reach the small intestine. But, like me, if all you want is to dislodge a bullet, a senna-tea-induced muscle spasm is a fairly safe bet.

My first contender was Smooth Move tea. More than one friend had looked at me in wide-eyed terror as they scream-whispered that Smooth Move was the holy grail of laxative teas. “Do NOT take it before bed if you’re an extremely heavy sleeper,” cautioned one friend. “And even then, wear sweatpants.” Another suggested sleeping in the bathroom entirely because, “it’s just that strong.” A third sent back perhaps the most ominous warning of all: “Smooth Move tea ruined my wedding night. Don’t do it.”

Already unmarriageable to begin with, I brewed a cup of Smooth Move chamomile, boasting a whopping 1,080 milligrams of senna leaf, which promised to “generally [produce] a bowel movement in six to twelve hours.” Its woody floral taste was a pleasant surprise and made for an easy drink, even if it did little to decrease my trepidation. I settled into bed, making sure no blankets would impede a mad dash to the bathroom.

I needn’t have worried. Twelve hours in, little had occurred. There were no ruined sweatpants or sheets; my toilet bowl still gleamed. I was still constipated.

Undeterred, I moved on to a mint-scented “gentle laxative” the following night that promised to help me Get Regular. While it had only 1,010 milligrams of senna, it did boast over 1,100 milligrams of herbs my mother often overloads in Indian food — coriander root, star anise, cinnamon bark — Asia’s purest diuretic. Once again, the wait was for naught; the following morning’s results were even less offensive than the night prior, and the dull ache in my lower abs (fine, upper vag) was still present.

A utilitarian third box promised the no-nonsense toughness that my earlier two teas had largely sidestepped. Touting an “ancient Chinese-American recipe” from California, it assured me that both my physical and mental well-being would be significantly enhanced by its faux-mystical healing properties. This time, I went all in, ordering not one but two extra-spicy dishes of rogan josh from the local Indian place. I set up camp in the bathroom. I refused to give into the shining pink beacon of Pepto-Bismol on my bathroom counter. And, once again, another day, another drought.

While the rational explanation might be that it was stomach cancer after all, I persevered, deciding that if one bag was mildly effective, all three types of tea combined must be triply effective. As for the pesky issue of having to drink 24 ounces of water before bed? No problem; I just steeped all three bags in one cup. Somehow I had no idea that tea gets stronger the longer you leave it in water, so I recklessly steeped them for an unsanctioned 45 minutes.

Finally, after four cups of tea in as many nights, I was rewarded with a colon-emptying so thorough I was sure I’d never need to go to the bathroom again. I texted every holistic friend I had to alert them that I had achieved the Serena Slam of shitting.

How very, very wrong I was.

I used to swallow marbles as a child as a party trick to make people like me. And every time I’d swallow a marble, it would take me anywhere from three to five days to pass the damn thing. I remembered this at 32,000 feet in the air, when I suddenly realized that my recently flushed colon, a day off of its seeming-ceramic victory lap, still had a few things to say. Which is how I found myself en route to New York, seated in first class for the first time ever as a birthday gift to myself, with the dawning realization that the low ceaseless rumble in my seat wasn’t merely the plane’s engine turning over.

When the flight attendant brightly announced after takeoff that “both rear lavatories are out of order!” I knew I was in for a rough ride. While I was able to pull off a few 15-minute occupations of the single stall, someone would invariably knock, forcing me sheepishly back to my assigned seat. During the last 25 minutes of my flight, I found myself in the truly mortifying position of realizing that no matter how tightly I clenched, I was definitely going to shit my pants.

To be clear, the actual pants-shitting was at best a fart with a little something extra. But after age 5, any amount past “I didn’t shit my pants on the airplane today” is too much. With my head held high and my denim-cutoff-clad cheeks clenched tight, I exited that airplane with all the dignity an ancient Chinese-American could muster and power-waddled to the La Guardia bathroom to put on my (actual) big-girl underpants.

You would think that the humiliation of crapping my bikini briefs would put me off laxative teas forever, but after two weeks and untold amounts of fried food, I am still completely Regular — a joy so all-encompassing I’d drink three cups of Smooth Move tea a day to keep it going.

Still, I’ve learned a few things. Most important: Laxative teas are not magic. While they should start kicking in within six to eight hours, if, like me, you ate your body weight in fast food hoping for a get-out-of-jail-free card, it may take a few hours longer to feel relief. Do not double (or triple) up as you lie in wait. Smooth Move tea has become my go-to if I feel slightly bloated; it tends to work the quickest, and most consistently, with only a minimal amount of “will I make it to the bathroom in time” guesswork. Yogi’s Get Regular tea is fine if I’m a little gassy, but isn’t nearly as effective against any real stomach pain. I steer clear of the utilitarian Herbal Laxative Tea unless the situation is particularly untenable, or I’ve eaten Indian food from the taco truck near my apartment, because one strongly brewed cup is enough to keep you sleeping in the bathroom for a day and a half. (As for the weight loss, I did shed a couple of pounds, but only for a day or two.)

Given the lengthy half-life the teas tend to require, they haven’t become part of my daily repertoire just yet. But if I’m properly backed-up, in spitting distance of a pair of sweatpants, and nowhere near an airplane lavatory? There’s a good chance that one — and only one — cup of Smooth Move tea is that night’s digestif.

Lessons From a 4-Day Experiment With Laxative Teas