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Laxatives are available in several forms, functioning in a manner depending on the needs of each user. For example, bulk-forming laxatives work like fiber; they increase “the bulk of the stool.” Osmotic laxatives increase water that go out of the bowels to soften the stool; stimulant laxatives increase the speed of movement in the bowels. Some of these are available in powder form and can be mixed into liquids.
Lastly, stool softeners reduce the texture of stools by decreasing the surface tension. Some forms of laxatives can take a day or 2 to work; therefore, if someone is seeking instant relief, they may have to try another form; some may double their dosage. Laxative abuse is a problem with short and long-term side effects.
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Despite their intended use, people can misuse laxatives in attempts to achieve their ideal body weight. Since laxatives encourage regular bowel movements, they may decrease bloating and create a false sense of weight loss. Side effects of laxative use can be uncomfortable and include:
Taking laxatives to improve bowel motility and alleviate constipation, as needed and according to the recommended doses, is usually harmless. However, when taken over long periods of time, laxatives have the potential for misuse, abuse, and dependence.
Laxative abuse occurs when someone wants to use laxatives to lose weight. Studies reveal that laxatives do not reduce body fat or promote long-term weight loss and have a minimal effect on a decrease in caloric intake.
Additionally, studies confirm that the weight loss that does occur is temporary and due to a decrease in “water weight.” Laxatives work by “keeping water in the gut around the stool;” the loss of water weight causes a temporary reduction of the appearance of belly fat or bloating which can quickly return after eating a meal or drinking a beverage.
56.3% of people with eating disorders used laxatives.
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Laxative misuse is often associated with people who have body dysmorphia or anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia nervosa eating disorders. Laxative use is not only related to vanity but can become a progressively unhealthy way of dealing with feelings of shame, depression, the need for acceptance, the need for control, or anxiety. A study noted that “56.3% of people with eating disorders used laxatives.” Additionally, “71.6% of people suffering with purging anorexia abused laxatives.”
These statistics noted women between 14 to 19 endured eating disorders. Research has shown a connection between post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders like bulimia which can lead to laxative dependence. Individuals with bulimia often express a profound desire to feel “empty.” In laxative dependence an individual cannot have normal bowel function without the use of laxatives, despite the potential for serious negative health consequences — including death.
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The chronic use of laxatives on a continued long-term basis can cause severe dehydration, a reduction in electrolytes, and a disturbance in mineral balance like magnesium, sodium, potassium, and phosphates, which allow muscles to work optimally. Consequently, the most important organs for survival may become impaired and unable to function properly resulting in irreversible damage.
Since laxative use is intended to reduce bloating and lose weight, many of the effects of laxative abuse will be physical; they will vary, however. Some of the symptoms of laxative dependence include but are not limited to:
Not only do these symptoms cause physical injury and physical dysfunction, but the pressure to be thin (and concerned family members) can complicate matters even more. Lastly, if someone is not feeling physically well, they won’t be their healthiest self — and may withdraw from feelings of depression. Once depression occurs, unhealthy self-medication can accompany it.
In addition to health problems, depression, a lack of self-confidence, and digestion problems, there are more long-term health risks associated with laxative abuse. Many of these are irreversible and severely damaging. Some of these include:
Bowel nerve damage can cause the intestinal tract to function poorly, hence someone continually using laxatives to assist in bowel movements.
Stopping a laxative use disorder can be difficult to do at home or alone. If you are struggling to stop abusing laxatives, and have experienced a traumatic experience, you may need a hands-on approach to treatment. Contact a treatment provider today.
Krystina Murray has received a B.A. in English at Georgia State University, has over 5 years of professional writing and editing experience, and over 15 years of overall writing experience. She enjoys traveling, fitness, crafting, and spreading awareness of addiction recovery to help people transform their lives.
Reviewed by Certified Addiction Professional
Dayna Smith-Slade, MAC
Dayna Smith-Slade is a nationally certified Master Addictions Counselor (MAC), licensed Substance Abuse Professional (SAP), and Substance Abuse Expert (SAE) with over 29 of hands-on experience in the addiction field.
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