Pharmacy Technician Programs
Pharmacy Technician Programs

Pharmacy Help: Understanding Laxatives


Laxatives are used to treat occasional constipation. Also called purgatives, they can be taken in the form of food products, drugs or compounds. It increases dietary fibers and makes the stool bulkier to cause retention of excess water which induces peristaltic action.

There are some laxatives which are used to hold more water in the small and large intestine, which are called osmotics. Saline laxatives can release chemicals which can disrupt electrolyte balance in the human body.

Some food products which are used as laxatives are almonds, apple juice, aloe vera, celery, grapes, fenugreek, coconut, dates, guava, pineapple, plum, and molasses. Generally, laxatives are used to cause bowel movement, but some people use it to reduce weight. This type of laxative abuse can have severe medical problems.

There are different types of laxatives, and people often use more than one form to cure constipation. Some of the common forms are bulk producing agents, stool softeners, lubricants, hydrating agents and stimulants. Bulk producing agents are also called bulking agents. They loosen the food found in the large intestine and colon and cause bowel movement.

Some of the examples of bulk producing agents are broccoli, bran, psyllium husk, and dietary fibers.

Stool softeners are chemicals which act on food particles in the small and large intestine. They allow additional water absorption, which make bowel movement easier. Lubricants make the stool slippery. Mineral oil is an effective lubricant and prevents absorption of water and fats by the colon, which increases the content of water and fat in the stool, easing bowel movement.

Hydrating agents help in the retention of excess water in the intestine, which softens the stool. It also increases intra-luminal pressure which makes the bowel movement easy. However, saline hydrating agents can cause electrolyte imbalance in patients. Hyperosmotic agents are also hydrating agents which are used to retain water in the colon and reduce pH, which increases peristalsis in colon.

Finally, stimulants act on the nerve plexus or the intestinal mucosa, which alters electrolyte secretion, stimulating peristaltic action.

People also use laxatives when they suffer from eating disorders or if they do not get enough fiber in their diet diet, which causes constipation. Laxatives are used by people who suffer from eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa in order to eliminate calories. It is assumed that laxatives eliminate food from the body before it starts getting digested and turns into fat. However, studies show that using laxatives results in the assimilation of undigested food in the colon or intestine and has no role in preventing weight gain.

In fact, excess use of laxatives can create permanent dependency and cause a steady feeling of constipation. It can cause other serious side effects as well. The excess use of certain laxatives such as castor oil, phenolphthalein, and senna can be particularly harmful.

Repeated use of laxatives can result in elimination of excess fluid from the human body and cause medical complications such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, water retention, bleeding, and constipation. Prolonged use of laxatives can cause a feeling of constipation and bloating called reflex constipation. Additionally, laxative abuse can drain the body of minerals and water, which causes electrolyte imbalance. The minerals sodium and potassium are essential minerals which are required for the functioning of muscles and nerves. The excess use of laxatives slows can result in damage of muscular function.

Laxative abuse can even result in dehydration, which can cause fainting and blurred vision. Furthermore, it can cause kidney failure, infections in the urinary tract, vomiting, muscle spasm, heart attack, and tremors. In extreme cases, it can even be fatal. Some other medical conditions that can result are intestinal paralysis, pancreatitis, irritable bowel, and renal failure.

Laxatives are used to prevent constipation, but the overuse of laxatives can cause irritable bowel syndrome, dehydration, and even death. It does not help people to lose weight and it should not be used every day as it can have adverse effects on the digestion system.

Laxative abuse can be stopped by simple ways such as eating food at regular intervals and drinking six to ten glasses of water in a day. In case a patient is constipated for more than three days, he/she should contact a medical practitioner.