Laxative Abuse

Laxative abuse is often associated with eating disorders. It occurs when people use laxatives with a mistaken belief that laxatives can help them lose weight. Laxative abuse is not an effective method for reducing the calories absorbed by the body, but it can cause serious health complications.

When used according to their labels, laxatives help relieve constipation. Laxatives work in one of several ways to help the body eliminate stool. Usually they either make stool more moist so it passes easily or they stimulate the intestine so it pushes stool out. Laxatives may be taken orally or rectally, depending on the particular laxative.

Many people who abuse laxatives do so because they think the laxatives will flush all of the food they have eaten out of their digestive system. They may binge eat and then try to purge with laxatives. This is a misunderstanding of how laxatives work. Laxatives do not push food out of the body until it has already passed through the digestive tract and been digested. What laxatives can cause to leave the body are necessary liquids and minerals. Any weight the person does lose is water weight, which is regained when the person becomes rehydrated.

Even over the counter laxatives, used as directed, have some side effects. These can include:

  • Cramping
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Nausea
  • Thirst
  • Belching
  • Feeling faint
  • Discolored urine
  • Increased constipation
  • Irritation of throat and/or rectum

In addition to these side effects of using laxatives, laxative abuse can have even more serious consequences. Because laxatives flush liquids, electrolytes, and vitamins and minerals out of the body, the person abusing laxatives risks dehydration and upsetting the delicate balance of chemicals in his or her body. If this occurs in a person abusing laxatives, he or she may experience organ damage or death.

Some of the symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Dry mouth and lips
  • Lack of urine, sweat, and tears
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Shaking
  • Blurred vision
  • Feeling faint or fainting
  • Coma

Because it can damage the kidneys and even be fatal, severe dehydration requires medical attention. A person who has an eating disorder and is abusing laxatives may not acknowledge that their life is at risk or be willing to drink liquids, and dehydration can cause confusion, so others may need to seek emergency help for them if they are severely dehydrated.

Laxative abuse can also cause damage or infections to the person's colon. The body can become dependent on laxatives, meaning the colon no longer produces bowel movements without them. If a person becomes dependent on laxatives he or she may also need to use more of them to produce bowel movements.

A person who is dependent on laxatives needs to work with a doctor to slowly quit laxatives and restore normal colon and bowel function. They may also need the help of a therapist and a dietician to develop healthy attitudes toward food and body image.


MayoClinic, "Over-the-counter laxatives for constipation: Use with caution" [online]
National Eating Disorders Association, "Laxative Abuse: Some Basic Facts" [online]
International Bibliographic Information on Dietary Supplements, Record Detail, "Laxative abuse: a hazardous habit for weight Control" [online]
SAMHSA's National Mental Health Information Center, "Eating Disorders" [online]

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