Laxatives and Why They Can Be Dangerous

Laxatives are designed for people to use when they're having trouble with bowel movements (or constipation). Laxatives are not meant to be used regularly and are designed to be use on occasion. Yet, many people abuse laxatives in an attempt to lose weight. Here are some facts and information about laxatives in the context of eating disorder.

1. Laxatives don't actually cause weight loss

The main motivation for most individuals who abuse laxatives is weight loss. When you take a laxative, it has to be dissolved in your blood stream before it can take effect on your intestines. Most of the nutritional and caloric value of a food has already been absorbed by your small intestine by the time the laxative hits your large intestine. The fecal matter that is expelled after taking a laxative consists mostly of water, electrolytes, fiber, and wastes from the colon. Any perception of weight loss is actually water loss and will likely be reversed once the person hydrates.

2. Health consequences of laxative abuse

Long-term laxative abuse can cause a person to have electrolyte and mineral balances. This imbalance can have impacts on vital organs. Additionally, chronic dehydration from laxative abuse can cause tremors, fainting, and kidney damage. A tolerance can also be built against laxatives, which would cause a person to take larger and larger amounts to attain the same impact that one or two laxatives initially have. Chronic laxative use may also cause colon cancer, colon infections, and the overall improper functioning of the colon.

3. Treatment is available

When I work with individuals who are struggling with laxative abuse, I approach the issue from a harm reduction standpoint. That means that my initial goal is to reduce the amount of laxatives that a person takes per day or per week. If, for example, you're taking 5 laxatives a day, I may ask you to reduce that number to 3 per day. 

It's also important to identify triggers for laxative use and work to replace the behavior with an alternative coping skill. Additionally, I require that all of my clients who struggle with any sort of disordered eating to seek consultation from their medical doctor and a registered dietitian. 

Emily Teegarden