The use of laxatives as a weight loss aid is a disturbing practice among desperate dieters and those with eating disorders. It involves a continual, prolonged use of laxative products to encourage bowel movements or deliberate overdosing to “flush” excess food from the body. The immediate effects can include a temporary loss of stool and water weight, dehydration, constipation, and dependency; but the long-term effects of laxative abuse are much worse.
Anyone who has used laxatives as directed for occasional constipation knows that there are sometimes side effects such as diarrhea, bloating, cramping, or pain. Since stimulant laxatives affect the nerves in the intestines, these side effects aren’t unusual and often clear up along with the constipation.
However, the side effects from laxative abuse are more severe. Relying on laxatives for bowel movements or taking more laxative than is directed causes fluid loss, which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. This in turn can result in water retention or swelling, leading to further laxative abuse in an attempt to rid the body of water weight. Excessive bowel movements may irritate the intestine and cause injury, hemorrhoids, bleeding, or bowel ulceration.
The long-term effects of laxative abuse can be dangerous or even deadly. If a dependency develops, a person will no longer just want to use laxatives; laxatives will be necessary in order for bowel movements to occur. This is a sign of decreased bowel function, which may also come with intestinal injury or gastric damage. Sluggish bowel from laxative dependency and excessive diarrhea from abuse can also decrease the body’s ability to absorb certain nutrients, leading to deficiencies.
The electrolyte imbalances caused by short-term use become serious in the long-term. Proper electrolyte balance is necessary for good cardiovascular function, and when this balance is tipped by chronic diarrhea, it may result in irregular heartbeat, arrhythmia, heart attack, or even death. Other complications include permanent organ damage and increased risk of bowel diseases.
Recovering from laxative abuse is a difficult process for someone who has come to rely on these medications for perceived weight loss or proper bowel function. It can be especially hard for those with eating disorders, as the symptoms of laxative withdrawal are often the very things they were trying to avoid by taking laxatives in the first place. Bloating and fluid retention are common, as is constipation and a sick feeling. Fatigue and mood swings may also occur. It’s important for laxatives to be avoided during withdrawal and recovery, even if constipation becomes severe. Otherwise, the person may return to abusive habits and begin the cycle all over again.
Although they can be useful for the relief of occasional constipation, long-term use and abuse of laxatives can lead to dependency and permanent bodily damage. Like any medication, laxatives should only be used as directed.
“Laxative Abuse.” Colon Cleanse and Constipation Resource Center. 27 April 2009. 2 Dec 2010.
“Laxative Abuse: What Are the Dangers?” Xomba.com. 23 May 2009. 2 Dec 2010.
“Diet Pills, Laxatives and Dangerous Methods.” SomethingFishy.org. 2 Dec 2010.