Substance that promotes defecation. These include irritants (stimulants) such as cascara sagrada and castor oil, bulk formers such as bran and psyllium, saline laxatives such as Epsom salts or milk of magnesia, glycerin, lubricants such as mineral oil and some vegetable oils, and stool softeners. A high-fibre diet is more important than laxatives in correcting simple intestinal constipation.
Learn more about laxative with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Laxatives (or purgatives) are foods, compounds, or drugs taken to induce bowel movements or to loosen the stool, most often taken to treat constipation. Certain stimulant, lubricant, and saline laxatives are used to evacuate the colon for rectal and bowel examinations, and may be supplemented by enemas in that circumstance. Sufficiently high doses of laxatives will cause diarrhea. Laxatives only work to hasten the elimination of undigested remains of food in the large intestine and colon.
There are several types of laxatives, listed below. Some laxatives combine more than one type of active ingredient to produce a combination of the effects mentioned. Laxatives may be oral or in suppository form.
Constipation with no known organic cause, i.e. no medical explanation, exhibits gender differences in prevalence: females are more often affected than males. Not surprisingly, some advertisers promote their brands as being more feminine and thereby tailor their message to the market. The way laxatives function in males and females, however, does not exhibit significant differences.
Also known as bulking agents or roughage, these include dietary fiber. Bulk-producing agents cause the stool to be bulkier and to retain more water, as well as forming an emollient gel, making it easier for peristaltic action to move it along. They should be taken with plenty of water. Bulk-producing agents have the gentlest of effects among laxatives and can be taken just for maintaining regular bowel movements.
These cause water and fats to penetrate the stool, making it easier to move along. Many of these quickly produce a tolerance effect and so become ineffective with prolonged use. Their strength is between that of the bulk producers and the stimulants, and they can be used for patients with occasional constipation or those with anorectal conditions for whom passage of a firm stool is painful.
These simply make the stool slippery, so that it slides through the intestine more easily. An example is mineral oil, which also retards colonic absorption of water, softening the stool. Mineral oil may decrease the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
Saline laxatives attract and retain water in the intestinal lumen, increasing intraluminal pressure and thus softening the stool. They will also cause the release of cholecystokinin, which stimulates the digestion of fat and protein. Saline laxatives may alter a patient's fluid and electrolyte balance.
Sulfate salts are considered the most potent.
Lactulose works by the osmotic effect, which retains water in the colon, lowering the pH and increasing colonic peristalsis. Lactulose is also indicated in Portal-systemic encephalopathy. Glycerin suppositories work mostly by hyperosmotic action, but also the sodium stearate in the preparation causes local irritation to the colon.
Solutions of polyethylene glycol and electrolytes (sodium chloride, sodium bicarbonate, potassium chloride, and sometimes sodium sulfate) are used for whole bowel irrigation, a process designed to prepare the bowel for surgery or colonoscopy and to treat certain types of poisoning. Brand names for these solutions include GoLytely, GlycoLax, CoLyte, NuLytely, and others.
|Onset of Action||Laxative Name|
|6 - 8 hours|
|6 - 10 hours|
|2 - 6 hours|
|15 min - 1 hour|
These stimulate peristaltic action and can be dangerous under certain circumstances. Long term use can lead to 'cathartic colon'. Stimulant laxatives act on the intestinal mucosa, or nerve plexus; they also alter water and electrolyte secretion. They are the most severe among laxatives and should be used only in extreme conditions. Castor oil may be preferred when more complete evacuation is required.