Laxatives are substances typically used to relieve constipation in people unable to achieve regular bowel movements. According to the Mayo Clinic, normal bowel movements vary among individuals but generally range from one to three per day. Constipation often leads to further stomach upsets including bloating, gas and flatulence, which may also be relieved by laxatives. Over-the-counter laxatives are available in tablet, gel, liquid, powder or gum form. Laxatives can have negative health effects in people taking medications, suffering from health conditions or over-using them. Consult with a physician before taking laxatives to determine their safety and any alternative options.
How Laxatives Work
Different types of laxatives have different effects on the body to help alleviate digestive upsets. The most common laxatives include oral bulk-forming types such as Metamucil and Benefiber and oral stimulants such as Ex-Lax and Senokot. Bulk-forming laxatives contract the intestinal walls normally to form soft, bulky stools for elimination, while oral stimulants stimulate the intestinal walls to contract rhythmically for stool removal. The Mayo Clinic advises that bulk-forming laxatives are usually gentler on the body and may be used more consistently versus stimulants, which are not advised for long-term use.
Laxatives do have side effects that must be considered and discussed upon a physician's approval. Specifically, over-using many laxatives can lead to long-term dependency in which the intestinal tract has decreased bowel function. This may mean that users will be unable to produce bowel movements without assistance. Common side effects associated with bulk-forming laxatives include gas, bloating and cramping. Oral stimulants may incur nausea, belching, cramping and diarrhea.
According to the Mayo Clinic, intestinal gas is a normal byproduct of the breakdown of undigested food and usually forms in the large intestine or colon. Gas production is a normal part of food digestion and people may pass gas several times during digestion. However, if passing gas becomes more frequent or accompanied by other symptoms such as stomach pains, it may signal a more serious disorder such as irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease or a peptic ulcer.
How to Use
According to FamilyDoctor.org, not all laxatives may lead to long-term dependency. Bulk-forming laxatives are safest to use and may even be used daily since they naturally bulk up stools for elimination. Laxatives should be slowly introduced into a daily regimen and taken with plenty of water to help push materials through the digestive tract. Inadequate fluid intake can lead to further digestive upset including further constipation and gas if bulky stools remain in the digestive tract. Laxatives vary according to brand and dosages and should be taken according to the product's label and under a physician's supervision.