Section I. INTRODUCTION
Cathartics are a group of drugs which cause an evacuation of the bowel (i.e.,
bowel movement). This group is one of the most abused categories of drugs. Why?
The answer is simple, most people believe that something is wrong with them if they
don't have at least one bowel movement a day.
DEFINITION OF A CATHARTIC
A cathartic is any agent which causes an evacuation of the bowel (i.e., causes a
bowel movement). You may have heard the term laxative used instead of cathartic.
Not all cathartics have to be purchased in a drug store. Remember, food such as
prunes and bran may be categorized as cathartics because of their ability to cause
evacuation of the bowels.
THE CATHARTIC (LAXATIVE) HABIT
The physician seldom has the opportunity to prescribe cathartics, except in the
hospital setting, since valid indications for the use of laxatives are limited. More
commonly, the physician is faced with the problem of chronic misuse of these agents by
his patients. The task the physician faces is a difficult one; the patient must be helped
to break the cathartic habit. The cathartic habit is the extensive, chronic misuse of self-
prescribed cathartics by a bowel-conscious person. Cathartics are taken by many
people because they believe they must have a bowel movement at least once each day.
THE NORMAL FUNCTIONING OF THE BOWELS
The digestive process, from the intake of food to the elimination of the waste
products from that ingestion, may take from one to three days depending on the
composition of the food. The number of times a healthy person defecates can vary from
once or twice a day to one bowel movement every one or two days. Many persons who
don't know a great deal about bowel habits often take cathartics so they can have daily
bowel movements. After a while, this results in an inability of the bowel to be stimulated
by normal body function. The person then begins to rely entirely on the ingestion of
cathartics for bowel movements. This is known as the cathartic habit. Time and
education are required before the person can remove this dependence upon cathartics.