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How many of you depend on laxatives to take care of business? Recently, several members asked about their use and safety, which made me realize more of us use laxatives than I would have guessed. I've written articles about digestive health, including elimination, but never broached the subject of laxatives.

For those who may be uncertain of what laxatives are, they are substances that promote bowel movements, and are intended for use when constipation occurs. Some use laxatives for weight control, which is abusive and an unfortunate and unhealthy choice. Realizing there's a need to understand and learn more about laxatives, I thoroughly researched the issue, in order to pass on current information regarding a topic none of us really want to discuss. So, instead of keeping our dirty little secrets to ourselves, let's take a look at the various types of  laxatives and how they impact our health, so you can make an informed decision whether to use them or not, and, if so, which kind.

Types of Laxatives

Stimulant Laxatives: These are laxatives that irritate the intestinal wall, in order to stimulate peristalsis, which are the involuntary muscle contractions that occur in the intestines to transport food and waste. We don't normally feel these contractions until it's time to hit the throne. We know what the upside to these laxatives is; however, it's the downside we need to be concerned with. These products can damage the intestines when frequently used, and can cause serious dependency and compromise – meaning the large intestine or colon, where waste is stored until it's eliminated, doesn't contract or perform peristaltic movement on its own, or without the help of an aid. This impaired state of evacuation can cause serious, lifelong illness, so don't think stimulant laxatives are benign.

Stimulant laxatives come in many varieties and brand names. Some well known over-the-counter brands include Dulcolax, Peri-Colace, and Ex-lax, in addition to many prescription brands available through a doctor. There are several herbal laxatives that are just as effective as the drug varieties, and the list includes senna, cascara sagrada, rhubarb, triphala, yerba mate', and aloe. Although many over-the-counter brands use herbals as their active ingredients, they should not be confused with natural herbal laxatives. Natural herbal laxatives can be found in tea, tablet, and capsule forms as single ingredients, or in combination products that contain multiple herbal stimulants. These products were traditionally found in health food stores, but due to popularity, can be found in most pharmacies and grocery stores.

Regardless of the type, all stimulant laxatives are meant to be used for short periods of time to avoid damage or dependency.

Osmotic Agents: As the name suggests, these agents draw water into the colon, which softens the stool and promotes elimination. These are considered the safest laxatives, but are still recommended for temporary use only, since overuse can also result in dependency. Active ingredients derived from specific salts are used in products like Milk of Magnesia, magnesium citrate, and Epsom salts, which work extremely well; however, they also flush minerals out of body. Other types of osmotic laxatives contain carbohydrates, such as sorbitol, which also pull water into the colon, and lactulose that is found in some prescription brands. No need to be concerned about these carbs if you're on a carb-restricted diet.

Stool Softeners: Mineral oil and docusate sodium are the typical active ingredients in stool softeners, which soften stools, so they'll pass through the colon more easily. They sound pretty harmless, since they're only softening things up and not irritating intestines, but they aren't. Daily or frequent use can interfere with other bodily functions and medicines; not to mention mineral oil prevents the proper absorption of important and essential fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and F (unsaturated fatty acids).

The safest way to hydrate stools is to drink plenty of water. Constipation and dry stools are usually the result of low water and fiber intake, so consume enough of both to avoid the need for softeners.

Bulk-forming Agents: These are safe products that can be taken everyday. Typically referred to as "fiber", these agents increase the bulk (volume) and water content of feces, which stimulate the colon, and make things easier to pass. Insoluble fiber, such as psyllium (my favorite), wheat and oat bran, and the soluble fiber, methylcellulose, are some of the popular fibers found in the many products available today. The need for fiber has dramatically increased, since Americans and many others do not consume enough high-fiber foods like fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Still, many of those who do also use fiber on a daily basis for continued regularity. The recommended amount of daily fiber consumption is 25-30 grams, so if your diet is lacking, boost your intake by adding fiber supplements to your diet. Whenever taking additional fiber, make sure to drink extra water, or constipation will worsen.

Probiotics and Acidophilus

We've all heard about probiotics and their beneficial influence on digestive health. When using any type of laxative, take acidophilus to replace the friendly bacteria, since continued use of laxatives clears out these all-important intestinal bacteria, which also make constipation worse.

Occasional Constipation

Most guys experience constipation from time to time. Turning to laxatives for occasional relief is not a problem, but daily use is a very dangerous approach to managing bowel health. Like I said, most cases of constipation are caused by insufficient amounts of fluids and fiber in the diet. Consuming adequate amounts of water is even more crucial than consuming fiber when it comes to avoiding constipation. However, there's more to do than drink and eat tree bark if you're still having problems. Change lifestyle habits to include exercise like brisk walking; never ignore or put off the urge to go; try to go to the bathroom the same time everyday, which will help train your system; include healthy fats in your diet; drink hot drinks like coffee and tea in the mornings, and eat foods like prunes and figs, which promote elimination. If all else fails and you suspect you may have low thyroid function, see your doctor and be tested, since hypothyroidism can often cause constipation.

There's no reason a healthy guy should have to deal with regular constipation. I strongly urge you to make any necessary changes to get off the laxatives, and then be patient and give yourself time to adjust. Your condition didn't get this way over night, and it won't turnaround overnight... but it eventually will. Your health, comfort, and happiness depend on it!

by Aaron Marino

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