Many people struggling to shed unwanted pounds have at some point considered using laxatives to lose weight. Is this an effective means of losing weight and, more importantly, is it healthy?
About Using Laxatives to Lose Weight
Frustrated dieters may turn to laxatives in an effort to prevent the absorption of food by the intestines, reasoning that if food passes quickly through the digestive tract, less of the fat and calories will enter the body. For others, laxatives and other purges such as excessive exercise or induced vomiting take on more of a psychological role, offering a feeling of cleansing and thinness. When you first start using laxatives to lose weight, you might drop a few pounds and think your laxative use is working, but this is simply not the case.
In fact, laxative use does little to stop your highly efficient digestive tract from absorbing the foods you eat. Laxatives often work by drawing extra water into the colon from other parts of the body, so the weight loss you see is in actuality water loss from the dehydrating effects of the laxative. Over time, this can have the opposite effect - your body's mechanisms for water regulation will become confused and you may actually end up retaining more water and feeling bloated and puffy regardless of your laxative use. Even worse, you can eventually become dependent on laxatives for normal bowel function and do long-term damage to your body by abusing these substances.
Consequences of Chronic Laxative Use
The fact that most laxatives are readily available over the counter may lead some to believe they are safe and harmless, but laxatives are no different than other medications, and laxative abuse is both serious and dangerous. The National Eating Disorders Association lists the following effects of habitual laxative abuse:
- Disturbed Electrolyte Balance: Many laxatives work by drawing fluids, minerals and electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus out of the bloodstream and into the large intestine. These substances must remain in a delicate balance for proper functioning of your colon, heart and nervous system. Disturbing this balance can impair the function of these vital systems.
- Dehydration: When too much fluid is lost through bowel movements, you can become dangerously dehydrated in an alarmingly short period of time. Severe dehydration can lead to coma and death.
- Laxative Dependence: Over time, your bowel will 'forget' how to function without the stimulating effect of the laxative. At this point, even if you are no longer using laxatives with the intention of losing weight you may need to keep taking the medication for normal bowel function.
- Long-Term Organ Damage: Chronic laxative abuse can eventually cause irritable bowel syndrome, liver damage and can even increase risk of colon cancer.
Stopping Laxative Abuse
The binge and purge cycle associated with using laxatives to lose weight could be indicative of a serious eating disorder. Bulimia is a very serious, sometimes deadly psychological illness that needs to be addressed. Because laxative abuse can become a physical dependence as well as a psychological issue, it is best dealt with in consultation with a qualified professional. Speak to your family physician, school counselor, or contact one of the organizations listed below:
- National Eating Disorder Association: Offers an information and referral help line as well as information kits for parents, educators and those struggling with disordered eating.
- National Eating Disorder Information Centre: A Canadian organization offering information and a service provider directory based on location.
- Something Fishy: A website devoted to eating disorder education and treatment.
- Edreferral: Eating disorder referral and information center. A comprehensive database of eating disorder treatment resources.
If you are casually looking for a quick way to lose a few pounds, laxative use is not the answer. A sensible diet and exercise program is the only way to achieve long-term weight loss and health. If you think you may have a problem with laxative abuse or any other eating disorder, seek help. An eating disorder may at times seem insurmountable, but with the proper support and treatment, recovery is possible.