Laxative Abuse: Side Effects and Long-Term Health Risks

Woman struggling with trauma

Laxative abuse can happen when a person is abusing over-the-counter laxatives to get rid of unwanted calories, to lose weight, or to feel thin or empty. Laxative abuse occurs when there is a repeated, frequent use of laxatives, and are especially common with eating disorders [1].

Laxative abuse is considered a dangerous practice that can result in severe medical and physical consequences.

Demything Laxatives

There is an unfounded belief that laxatives can help control weight or promote weight loss. When laxatives are used, most foods and liquids have been digested and processed by the body.

Most laxatives will artificially stimulate the large intestine to empty, and a laxative-induced bowel movement causes a perceived weight loss. Typically this bowel movement does not contain actual food, fat or calories, but instead causes the loss of water, minerals, and electrolytes from the colon.

As soon as a person drinks or eat, the body rehydrates. If a person is chronically using laxatives, then the body can run the risk of dehydration, which can overuse essential organs and can lead to death [1].

Medical and Physical Consequences

There are many physical and medical consequences of laxative abuse. One is the dysregulation of electrolytes and minerals in the body.

Sodium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous are electrolytes and minerals present in specific levels for the healthy functioning of nerves, muscles, colon, and heart. When this balance is in dysregulation, it can cause distress and decreased function of these organs.

Dehydration in the body can cause weakness of muscles, blurry vision, kidney damage, fainting, and tremors. In some severe cases, it can cause death. Dehydration often requires medical treatment to appropriately and safely rehydrate the body.

Laxative dependency can occur when a person abuses laxatives over a long period of time, and the colon stops reacting to recommended doses of laxatives. A continued increase in laxatives is typically needed to produce a bowel movement for those who abuse laxatives.

Damage to internal organs can create an over-stretched or lazy colon, which can lead to colon infections, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and liver damage [2]. In extreme laxative abuse, colon cancer can develop due to misuse.

healing from laxative abuseIn bulimia nervosa, laxative dependency can occur as well as damage to the gastrointestinal tract. Weakening and softening of bones can also happen with laxative dependence, as well as severe bowel tumors and kidney issues. With bulimia and laxative use, a person will start to become iller from common day illnesses due to a decrease or shutdown of the immune system [2].

A person will become more susceptible to infections. Severe dehydration can occur from loss of fluids and lack of hydration to cells and tissues. This can result in organ failure or death.

In anorexia nervosa, continued medical complications can occur and bone loss due from mineral loss with laxative abuse and can result in premature osteoporosis and bone fractures [3]. Kidneys are also damaged not only from low white blood cell count but also prolonged dehydration from a lack in ingestion of liquids and laxative misuse. This can lead to kidney failure.

How to Stop Laxative Abuse

Working with your physician or a medical doctor who specializes in eating disorders is important for a person who is trying to cease use of laxatives. When being monitored, the doctor can promote your medical needs for organ, mineral, and body damage and repair.

When working with your doctor and tapering off laxatives, you may feel anxious, feelings of fullness and have a sense of distress. Be patient with your body as it readjusts and relearns how to re-regulate itself and respond to natural cues.

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Remembering to eat foods high in fiber such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Scheduling an appointment with a dietician or nutritionist can help you slowly reincorporate foods into your meal plan to allow for natural reregulation.

Drinking at least 8 cups of water a day is also typically recommended by your medical team for proper hydration and repair to cells and tissues.

Some dieticians will also recommend gentle walks at some point during the day to gently help with natural bowel movements. Yoga or gentle non-aerobic exercises are used to help with this process.

Working with a therapist is helpful to deal with mental health issues that can arise from laxative abuse. With dehydration, mineral and nutrient loss can cause depression, anxiety or other comorbid problems.

Being able to address those along with the physical side effects of laxative abuse can be a good sounding board for many individuals.

Knowing what the physical side effects that there are with laxative abuse and misuse can help you identify if you are overusing laxatives. If you feel that you are struggling with how to stop, seek out medical staff, clinical therapeutic staff, and dietician support.

Through these resources you can address the physical consequences, dietary needs to re-regulate your body, as well as any underlying issues and/or anxiety associated with laxative misuse.

Through using these support systems, your body can often relearn to re-regulate and typically does not cause long-term damage to a person’s body.


Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


References:

[1] Laxative Abuse: Some Basic Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/laxative-abuse-some-basic-facts
[2] Dangers of laxative abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://www.bulimiahelp.org/book/about-bulimia/dangers-laxative-abuse
[3] Medical Issues From Anorexia, Bulimia and Other Eating Disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from http://www.bulimia.com/topics/medical-issues/
[4] Laxative Abuse. (n.d.). Retrieved July 31, 2017, from https://www.anred.com/lax.html


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 October 9, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 18, 2020.
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com