Laxatives Definition

Products to stimulate bowel movements. Laxatives work through various actions. Some help the stool to retain fluid, keeping the stool softer. Some lubricate the walls of the colon, making it easier for digestive waste to move through the gastrointestinal tract.

Others introduce fiber, which adds bulk to the stool as well as retains more fluid in the stool. Stimulant laxatives irritate the walls of the colon to accelerate peristalsis (contractions of the bowel), which moves stool through the bowel.

Function and Using

Laxatives intended to completely clear the colon, such as preparation for barium enema or colonoscopy, are sometimes called cathartics or drastics because their actions are fast and intense. Laxatives come in oral (tablets, powders, and liquids) and rectal (suppositories and enemas) preparations. They are available over the counter.

Doctors recommend attempting natural methods to encourage regular bowel movements before using laxatives. The gastrointestinal tract’s rhythm correlates to the kinds and amounts of foods ingested, as well as to the frequency of meals. Though many people believe a daily bowel movement is “normal,” normal is an individual measure that can range from two or three times daily to once every three days, depending on dietary habits.

Using laxatives to structure daily bowel movements interferes with the bowel’s natural rhythms. Over time, the bowel becomes “lazy” and does not contract unless a laxative stimulates it. Laxatives, and particularly suppositories and enemas, also can irritate the intestinal mucosa enough to cause chronic inflammation.


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