Laxative Abuse: Side Effects and Long-Term Risks

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Laxative abuse is a dangerous disordered eating behavior falsely represented as an appropriate, effective, and harmless weight-loss behavior. Laxatives are a type of medication used to treat constipation, however, diet culture has encouraged use of these medications to lose weight, whether through over-the-counter laxative medications or laxatives disguised as “detox teas” (e.g., China Slim Tea).

It is important to understand the reality of the impact of laxatives to avoid using them improperly and dangerously.

Demystifying Laxatives for Weight-Loss

The reality of the impact of laxative use on the body is very different from the myths presented. Diet culture purports that using detox teas and laxatives is an efficient and easy method of weight-loss with little effort required of the individual and few consequences. Celebrities shill laxative teas and lollipops as if their bodies are not carefully created and sculpted by chefs, fitness instructors, photoshop experts, social media specialists, and, especially, plastic surgeons. The reality is that these celebrities likely do not use these products at all and that, if they did, the impact would be much-less glamorous than they portray, with them spending hours on the toilet expelling uncomfortable bowel movements as opposed to leading glamorous, picture-perfect lives with no consequence.

While they make money off of endorsing products they likely do not use, the average consumer is spending hard-earned money on products thinking that they will revolutionize their body weight and shape when they won’t.

Do Laxatives Make You Lose Weight?

The truth is, laxatives do have an impact on the body, but not in the way that diet culture advertisements and messages purport. The science behind laxatives is clear – they do not lead to long-term weight loss no matter how many of them you use.

As one article from the National Eating Disorders Association details, “by the time laxatives act on the large intestine, most foods and calories have already been absorbed by the small intestine [1].” The mechanism by which laxatives work is that they artificially signal the large intestine to empty, however, what is emptied is not food, fat or calories but, instead, is “water, minerals, electrolytes, and indigestible fiber and wastes from the colon [1].” Ultimately, this “water weight” will return once the individual rehydrates.

Medical & Physical Consequences of Excessive Laxative Use

While laxative abuse will not lead to long-term weight loss, it does cause huge changes to the body, namely, the inside of the body.

To begin, individuals become dehydrated when excessively using laxatives. They might refuse to rehydrate due to wanting to maintain the weight loss mentioned above that is solely “water weight.” This dehydration can lead to “tremors, weakness, blurry vision, fainting, (and) kidney damage [1].” Dehydration must be treated medically and can lead to hospitalization and, in severe cases, death.

Laxatives are also tough on many bodily organs when used properly and even more so when abused and used excessively. The Addiction Center notes that “the most important organs for survival may become impaired and unable to function properly resulting in irreversible damage [2].”

Laxative abuse can also lead to an overstretched or lazy colon which can result in colon cancer, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and, in extreme cases, colon cancer.

The body’s nutrient balance is also negatively impacted by laxative use, with one article noting that it can cause “a disturbance in mineral balance like magnesium, sodium, potassium, and phosphates, which allow muscles to work optimally [2].”

Not only do laxatives not lead to weight loss, they can result in weight gain. One study published in Therapy in Practice notes that, with excessive laxative use, the “renin-aldosterone system becomes activated due to the loss of fluid, which leads to edema and acute weight gain when the laxative is discontinued [3].” This creates a vicious cycle, likely “reinforcing further laxative abuse when a patient feels bloated and has gained weight [3].”

Laxatives and Eating Disorders

Laxative abuse is an eating disorder behavior seen in up to 75% of those with diagnoses of Anorexia Nervosa Binge-Purge Type and/or Bulimia Nervosa [4]. Some of these individuals “may take up to 50–100 stimulant laxatives daily in (an) attempt to achieve the desired effect [4].”

Those that engage in laxative abuse, perhaps through buying those detox teas and lollipops sneakily not referred to as laxatives, are also at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder. In fact, “even minor degrees of stimulant laxative abuse may increase the incidence of eating disorders [4].”

How to Stop Laxative Abuse

Due to the false advertising of many laxative products as teas and lollipops, individuals might abuse laxatives without even realizing this is something they are doing. Laxative abuse can become an addictive behavior and letting go of this behavior is not easy or simple.

If you or someone you love is engaging in laxative abuse, it is important to get help as soon as possible. The sooner one gets help for laxative abuse, the less likely they are to experience the physical consequences mentioned above.

Pain in Headaches

Treatment for laxative abuse will likely look similar to that of eating disorders, as it is a disordered eating behavior. The severity of the attachment to laxative use as well as the impact on the body will determine the level of care an individual needs.

There can be a great deal of shame around struggling with laxative abuse as many are not comfortable acknowledging they experience the bowel impacts of laxative use. If you are struggling, do not allow this shame to silence you into continued pain and increasingly harmful consequences.

There is no shame in your struggle and you are worthy of help.


[1] Unknown (2022). Laxative abuse. National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved from

[2] Murray, K. (2021). Laxative abuse. Addiction Center. Retrieved from

[3] Roerig, J. L., et al. (2012). Laxative abuse: epidemiology, diagnosis, and management. Therapy in Practice.

[4] Gibson, D., et al. (2021). Personality characteristics and medical impact of stimulant laxative abuse in eating disorder patients – a pilot study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9:146.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 17, 2022 and Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC
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About Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC

Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth. As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.