Bowel movements are an essential part of the digestive process. They are the final stage, in which wastes are expelled from the body. Constipation, or the inability to have successful bowel movements, is a common occurrence, often related to lifestyle or heredity. The National Institutes of Health estimates that at least 4 million Americans suffer various degrees of constipation, and make 2.5 million visits to doctors annually for this reason. Causes vary, but the most common is the inability of the digestive system to fully break down hard food, mainly because the food lacks enough fiber.


A person is considered constipated when he passes stools only once in three or more days. Regular bowel movements can be restored through the use of laxatives. Laxatives are available as over-the-counter drugs, meaning they can be dispensed without a doctor’s prescription. The National Institutes of Health reports that $725 million worth of over-the-counter laxatives are sold annually in the United States.


Laxatives are typically needed when a patient continues to have difficulty with bowel movements after making prescribed changes in lifestyle and diet. They are of many types, but the most common are bulk-forming laxatives, which work by helping retain water in the body; and stimulants, or chemical-based laxatives, which can cause digestive contractions and have unpleasant side effects, according to the National Institutes of Health


Many branded drugs are available to help with bowel movements. Some of these are chemical laxatives, while others work more gently. Most over-the-counter laxatives have to be used for at least three days at a time for effects to be seen. If constipation persists after you take laxatives for three days, consult your doctor, as the constipation may be a symptom of a more serious illness.

Some of the most popular brand names for laxatives are Metamucil, Fibercon and Citrucel. These are bulk-fiber products. Other brands include Colace, which is a stool softener. Milk of Magnesia is a household name as an OTC drug for constipation, and works gently. Dulcolax is an allopathic drug, or a chemical laxative, and is very popular, although it may have more side effects than some of the more natural alternatives.