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Laxatives cover foods, drugs, lubricants, stimulants and various other compounds that soften the stool and aid in its smooth elimination. It could be orally taken or may be available as suppositories. Let’s check out the some useful information on laxatives in the following content.

Why laxatives are suggested

  • The main purpose of taking laxatives is to eliminate complications associated with constipation.
  • It relieves one from the complications of irritable bowel syndrome
  • The lubricants are administered before bowel surgery or examination
  • To improve symptoms of haemorrhoids and rectal bleeding

Different types of Laxatives and their mode of action

The mode of action differs depending on the type of laxatives one is using. Similarly the efficacy of the laxatives also varies from one person to another. There are 4 types of laxatives apart from foods.

Bulk producing agents

As the name suggests they make the stool bulkier by increasing its water absorbing capacity. They are mostly fibrous products that work on the small as well as the large intestine. Eg. Psyllium husk, Metamucil, Citrucel (methylcellulose), etc. They take 12-72 hours to give the desired result

Stool-softeners (surfactants) or Emollient Laxatives

Since they are surfactants, they “wet” the stool i.e. add moisture to the stool and enable strain-less bowel movement. They are mostly advised to women who had childbirth or people who underwent a surgery or suffering from haemorrhoids. Emollient takes a week or more to become effective. Eg: Colace and Kaopectate

Osmotics or Hydrating Agents

They hydrate the intestine i.e. help the intestine to draw more water from the surrounding tissues to make the stool soft. Saline laxatives, like milk of magnesia, di and mono basic sodium phosphate, Epsom salt, etc. and hyperosmotic agents like glycerine suppositories work on the large intestine and increase intraluminal pressure which further aids in smooth passage of stool. They take about 30 minutes to three hours to become effective.

Stimulants (irritants)

If you want an instant relief from constipation, then you can resort to stimulants. They irritate or stimulate the contractions of the colon, thereby accelerating immediate propulsion of the stool. Eg: Microlax, Dulcolax, castor oil, cascara etc.

Side Effects of Laxatives

  • Bulk formers cause gas, bloating, choking and flatulence
  • Osmotics might give rise to abdominal cramping, nausea, gas,  diarrhea and  increased thirst
  • Oral stool softeners can cause abdominal cramps, skin rash, throat irritation and even nausea
  • Rectal and oral stimulants might give rise to stomach pain, discomfort, belching, weak bowel, nausea, irritation in rectum, etc.  
  • Long term intake of oral laxatives can give rise to electrolyte imbalance in the body
  • Oral laxatives can interfere with medicines (blood thinners, antibiotics, heart medicines, bone medications, etc.), food and nutrient intake
  •  Laxatives  can prove damaging to your colon’s natural ability to contract when taken to get relief from constipation occurring due to appendicitis
  • They can also hinder your body’s natural ability to absorb calcium and vitamin D

Precautions to take before taking laxatives

  • We insist you to discuss with your doctor before self-prescribing laxatives considering the side effects they may have.
  • If your constipation problems persist, then do not increase the dose all by your own. Consult with your doctor regarding this.
  • Especially, if your are pregnant, then you must refrain from taking laxatives without your doctor’s permission
  • Though bulk formers are generally safe, it’s better to check the composition and ask your chemist before consuming them

Natural Laxatives

  • Long term dependence on laxatives is not at all recommended. So try the natural laxatives first.
  • Stay hydrated- drink plenty of water and fibrous fruit juices.
  • Have a glass of warm milk before going to sleep
  • Have fibre rich foods like guava, pears, prunes, oats, spinach, flaxseeds, broccoli, figs, etc.
  • Exercise regularly, go for walk and indulge in physical activities to eliminate constipation problems

All in all laxatives are just temporary measures to get rid of constipation problems. We suggest you to bring about a holistic change in your diet and lifestyle to get rid of bowel complications.

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Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: January 11, 2015

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