Laxatives are substances or drugs that stimulate the intestines, causing the body to eliminate waste. They are most often taken for constipation that may result from too little roughage in the diet, too little water, inactivity, anxiety, or even certain medications.
There are five main types of laxatives that work in varying ways to achieve the same result. They are fiber or bulk laxatives, hyperosmotics or salts, stimulants or cathartics, softeners and lubricants.
Laxatives that are high in fiber such as bran or cellulose products, increase bulk by combining with fluids in the body. This creates a natural stimulation of the intestines. Metamucil is one example of a particular brand.
Epsom salts and citrate of magnesia or citroma draw water from the body into the bowels to make a softer mass. This is the same principle as fiber laxatives, but some prefer hyperosmotics because they don’t have a tendency to cause the bloat that many people experience with fiber.
Examples of laxatives that stimulate the intestinal muscles are senna, phenolphthalein and cascara. The Ex-Lax brand falls under this category.
Stool softeners hydrate and lubricate mass in the intestine by causing it to absorb fluids and fats. An example here is Dioxin.
And finally, the most well known lubricant laxative is mineral oil.
Many people are under the false impression that they must eliminate waste every day. Though this may be normal for some, it isn’t an absolute. Using daily laxatives or enemas is not advisable and can lead to the body becoming “lazy” to eliminate on its own. Additionally, if food is forced through the intestines before it has had a chance to pass through the entire tract normally, important vitamins, minerals, fluids and other substances cannot be extracted for the body to use. This is the prime job of the intestines.
Even mineral oil depletes the body of Vitamins A and D because they are oil soluble. Once the intestines are empty from using a laxative, it may take a few days for them to fill enough for the body to induce natural elimination. If one uses laxatives every day, the body virtually never needs to induce waste removal. It’s unwise to ‘train the body’ to cease exercising natural functions. Unfortunately many young people abuse laxatives daily as a means of keeping weight off. This is very unhealthy and potentially damaging.
While the term “laxative” commonly refers to milder remedies like those listed above, substances that cause more intense action fall under the headings of either purgatives, hydrogogues, and drastics.
Occasional help from a laxative is normally safe in healthy people; however, prolonged problems should be diagnosed by a physician.
Safely Using Laxatives for Constipation
Tired of being constipated and think you might need a laxative? Millions of Americans suffer with symptoms of constipation:
- Straining while having a bowel movement
- Hard stools
- A feeling of obstruction or incomplete evacuation
- Fewer than three bowel movements per week
Laxatives contain chemicals that help increase stool motility, bulk, and frequency — thus relieving temporary constipation. But when misused or overused, they can cause problems, including chronic constipation. A healthy diet filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products; regular exercise; and drinking at least eight cups of water daily can help prevent constipation in most people.
Still, 85% of doctor visits for constipation result in a prescription for a laxative. So it’s important to understand how laxatives work and how to use them safely.
Types of Laxatives
There are different types of laxatives that come in pills, capsules, and liquids; suppositories; and enemas. Each type of laxative has specific benefits and possible side effects. Though using a suppository or enema in the rectum is not as convenient (or pleasant) as swallowing a pill, these manually inserted (or squirted) laxatives often work much faster to relieve your symptoms.
Bulking Agents (Fiber)
Fiber is the laxative most doctors recommend for normal and slow-transit constipation. Abdominal cramping, bloating, or gas can occur when abruptly increasing or changing your dietary fiber intake. Fiber is naturally available in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (especially wheat bran). Fiber is also available over the counter in Metamucil, Citrucel, Fiber-Lax, Benefiber, Equilactin, and Fibercon.
Fiber works by increasing the water content and bulk of the stool, which helps to move it quickly through the colon. When taking fiber supplements, it’s essential to drink enough water to minimize the possibility of flatulence and a possible obstruction.
People who increase their fiber abruptly may suffer abdominal cramping, bloating, or gas. Gradually increase your fiber. Also, fiber can reduce your body’s absorption of some medicines, so always take your medicine at least one hour before — or two hours after — consuming fiber.
As the name implies, lubricant laxatives make stools slippery. The mineral oil within these products adds a slick layer to the intestine’s walls and stops the stool from drying out. Though highly effective, lubricant laxatives are best used as a short-term cure for constipation. Over a longer period, mineral oil can absorb fat-soluble vitamins from the intestine, and decrease certain prescription drugs from being fully absorbed into the body.
Emollient Laxatives (Stool Softeners)
Commonly known as “stool softeners,” emollient laxatives such as Colace contain docusate, a surfactant that helps to “wet” and soften the stool. Although it might take a week or longer for emollient laxatives to be effective, they are frequently used by those who are recovering from surgery, women who have just given birth, or individuals with hemorrhoids.
Osmotic and Hyperosmolar Laxatives
These products include Fleet Phospho-Soda, Milk of Magnesia or MOM, Kristalose, and Miralax — all hydrating agents that draw fluids into the intestine from the surrounding tissues. More water in the intestine results in softer stools that are easier to pass. It’s imperative to drink a lot of water with osmotic and hyperosmolar laxatives, not only for the laxative to be effective, but to decrease the possibility of gas and cramps.
If you need almost instantaneous relief from constipation, the stimulant laxatives will do the job. This type of laxative works by stimulating the lining of the intestine, thereby accelerating the stool’s journey through the colon. Stimulant laxatives also increase a stool’s hydration. Some popular brands include Ex-Lax, Senokot, Correctol, Dulcolax, and Feen-a-Mint. Prunes (dried plums) are also an effective colonic stimulant and taste good, too.
Note: Don’t use stimulant laxatives daily or regularly. This type of laxative may weaken the body’s natural ability to defecate and cause laxative dependency. One more caveat: the stimulant laxatives may cause cramping and diarrhea.
Use Laxatives Safely and Sparingly
When using a laxative to cure occasional constipation, remember these tips:
- If you need to use laxatives to be “regular,” use fiber first.
- Drink fluids and stay well hydrated when using laxatives. Avoid regular use of stimulant laxatives. They can limit your body’s ability to absorb vitamin D and calcium.
- If your problem with constipation continues, see your doctor. Constipation may be a warning sign of a more serious problem such as colon cancer, diabetes mellitus, or hypothyroidism, among others. Your doctor can evaluate your medical history, do a physical exam and laboratory tests, and determine the exact cause and solution for your constipation.