Laxative use often starts innocently enough. You wanted to help your weight loss along. Then you started liking the “cleaned out” and “empty” feeling a lot. Before long, a couple of extra laxatives turned into a lot of extra laxatives. Now you can’t stop.

Laxative abuse is dangerous, even deadly. If you’re abusing laxatives, you need physical and psychological help to get better. Here’s why.

Why Laxative Abuse Is So Dangerous

Laxative abuse is common in people with bulimia nervosa, as well as people with other disordered eating issues like:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Binge-eating disorder
  • Purging disorder
  • Other specified feeding or eating disorders (OSFED)

The reality of laxative abuse is it doesn’t help you lose weight. Any perceived weight loss is in “water weight.” You regain the pounds when you drink and eat. Your body absorbs calories before a bowel movement happens. You won’t lose weight, but you may experience serious health risks. These may include:

Dehydration

Dehydration is a sign and symptom of laxative abuse. Dehydration is one of the main causes of other problems from abusing laxatives. Many types of laxatives work by pulling more water into the bowel to make it easier to pass. If you’re not rehydrating this can be dangerous. This is especially true if you’re experiencing watery diarrhea from abusing laxatives.

You may feel like you’ve lost weight shortly after taking laxatives. That feeling is misleading. The dehydration factor of laxative abuse actually has a rebound effect. Your body starts retaining water to compensate for water loss. Though you’ll feel lighter initially, you’ll likely experience water weight gain in the long run.

Dehydration can cause:

  • Organ damage
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Tremors
  • Fever
  • Blurry vision
  • Death

Heart Issues

Laxative abuse can cause electrolyte imbalances. This is mainly due to complications from dehydration. Abusing laxatives usually impacts these electrolytes:

  • Potassium
  • Sodium
  • Chloride

Through a complex process, electrolytes help control your heartbeat. An electrolyte imbalance can lead to serious heart issues. In extreme cases, it can cause heart failure and even death.

Damage to Body Functions

Abusing laxatives is bad news for the body all around. In addition to affecting the heart, electrolyte imbalances can impact:

  • The colon
  • Nerves
  • Muscles

Mineral imbalances and electrolyte imbalances disrupt how these systems function. Their job is to transmit energy and signals that help these areas work. When electrolytes are off-balance, organs, nerves and muscles feel the impact. Laxative abuse can throw off these important minerals and electrolytes:

  • Sodium
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium

Laxative Dependence

Over time you can become dependent on laxatives. Your colon begins requiring larger amounts of laxatives for bowel movements. You become painfully constipated without large doses of laxatives.

Some people with eating disorders say this is one of the hardest parts of stopping laxative abuse. You may have become psychologically addicted to the empty feeling laxative abuse provides. It can take some time for your body to be able to produce a bowel movement on its own again. You may experience uncomfortable laxative withdrawal symptoms in the meantime, like:

  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Temporary weight gain (due to water retention)
  • Cramping

These symptoms can feel especially troubling if you have disordered eating problems. People with eating disorders struggle with feeling “fat” even when they’re thin or normal weight. It’s important to remember that this is a temporary condition. Your body will learn to have bowel movements on its own again. Depending on the severity of laxative abuse it may take a couple of weeks or months. Laxative addiction treatment can correct the effects of laxative abuse. In extreme cases, surgery could be necessary.

Colon Damage

The colon takes a beating from laxative abuse. Abusing laxatives puts you at risk for:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes extreme pain during bowel movements.
  • “Lazy” colon, which means your colon is sluggish. It produces less than three bowel movements a week. You are constipated, bloated and have hard bowels.
  • Abusing laxatives can cause the large intestines to slip outside the body.
  • Laxative abuse can cause bloody stools, diarrhea and hemorrhoids.
  • Some types of laxatives may increase your risk for colon cancer.

Mental Health Issues

People with eating disorders frequently struggle with co-occurring disorders. This is when addiction or another mental illness exists. Abusing laxatives doesn’t cause co-occurring disorders. It’s worth mentioning though that the underlying issues of people that abuse laxatives can make mental illness more complex. One study found laxative abuse is tied to:

  • More suicide attempts and self-harm
  • Longer lengths of illness
  • Greater risk of borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • More impulsivity
  • Feelings of anger and emptiness
  • More intense mental illness symptoms
  • Worse eating disorder symptoms

Getting Better

It’s possible to recover from the physical and psychological wounds of abusing laxatives.

Residential treatment at an eating disorder treatment center may be necessary. This gives you time and space to focus on yourself. You’ll be in a safe setting to deal with the difficult physical and emotional feelings that may occur when you stop abusing laxatives. Effective laxative abuse treatment often includes:

Laxative Detox

Your medical team will decide if you need to stop taking laxatives or wean off of them. Many times they will put you on fiber supplements or stool softeners to help the process. These are non-stimulant types of laxatives. They soften your bowels making them easier to pass. They don’t act on the digestive walls and speed up bowel movements like stimulant laxatives.

Eating disorder treatment centers have medical and alternative approaches. These can help ease physical discomfort of laxative withdrawal.

Eating Disorder Treatment

Laxative abuse is often a symptom of an eating disorder. Disordered eating requires intensive professional treatment. In an eating disorder treatment center you’ll work with mental health counselors. They’ll help you explore why you abuse laxatives. Sometimes these reasons include challenges like:

  • Co-occurring disorders like depression, anxiety or personality disorders
  • Unhealthy relationships
  • Social pressures
  • Low self-esteem
  • Body dysmorphic disorder (obsessing over a perceived flaw in appearance)

Education on Laxative Abuse

Recovery from laxative abuse can be difficult. Nutritionists and physicians will educate you on the process so you know what to expect. They’ll assess your symptoms. You’ll receive assurance that you’ll eventually have a bowel movement on your own. Medical professionals help ease your symptoms in the meantime. You’ll learn about better eating habits that support overall health. You’ll learn how you can repair the damage of laxative abuse.

Eating Disorder Recovery Support

Recovery from eating disorders is a lifelong endeavor. You’ll learn ways to cope with the ups and downs of life without disordered eating. Professional treatment will connect you with resources like support groups and counselors. You’ll get the tools to stay resilient on your recovery path.

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Krisi Herron

Medically Reviewed by

Krisi Herron, LCDC

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