Laxatives are substances or drugs that stimulate the intestines, causing the body to eliminate waste. They are most often taken for constipation that may result from too little roughage in the diet, too little water, inactivity, anxiety, or even certain medications.
There are five main types of laxatives that work in varying ways to achieve the same result. They are fiber or bulk laxatives, hyperosmotics or salts, stimulants or cathartics, softeners and lubricants.
Drugs that are high in fiber such as bran or cellulose products, increase bulk by combining with fluids in the body. This creates a natural stimulation of the intestines. Metamucil is one example of a particular brand.
Epsom salts and citrate of magnesia or citroma draw water from the body into the bowels to make a softer mass. This is the same principle as the fiber-based drugs, but some prefer hyperosmotics because they don't have a tendency to cause the bloat that many people experience with fiber.
Examples that stimulate the intestinal muscles are senna, phenolphthalein and cascara. The Ex-Lax brand falls under this category.
Stool softeners hydrate and lubricate mass in the intestine by causing it to absorb fluids and fats. An example here is docusate.
And finally, the most well known lubricant laxative is mineral oil.
Many people are under the false impression that they must eliminate waste every day. Though this may be normal for some, it isn't an absolute. Using daily laxatives or enemas is not advisable and can lead to the body becoming "lazy" to eliminate on its own. Additionally, if food is forced through the intestines before it has had a chance to pass through the entire tract normally, important vitamins, minerals, fluids and other substances cannot be extracted for the body to use. This is the prime job of the intestines.
Even mineral oil depletes the body of Vitamins A and D because they are oil soluble. Once the intestines are empty from using a laxative, it may take a few days for them to fill enough for the body to induce natural elimination. If one uses these every day, the body virtually never needs to induce waste removal. It's unwise to 'train the body' to cease exercising natural functions. Unfortunately many young people abuse laxatives daily as a means of keeping weight off. This is very unhealthy and potentially damaging.
While the term "laxative" commonly refers to milder remedies like those listed above, substances that cause more intense action fall under the headings of either purgatives, hydrogogues, and drastics.
Occasional help from a laxative is normally safe in healthy people; however, prolonged problems should be diagnosed by a physician.