When an individual takes laxatives, which are also known as aperients or purgatives, for the sole purpose of losing weight, then he or she put himself or herself at risk for developing a laxative abuse problem. In many cases, laxative abuse often starts out as an individual’s attempt to lose a few pounds, however, it can quickly become an issue where health risks and dangerous thought patterns can impact one’s life.
The forms of laxatives that are most commonly abused include fiber supplements, osmotic laxatives, stimulants, and stool softeners. The chemicals within these substances work by clearing water out of the body, adding moisture to the stool that is in the colon, and stimulating the intestinal muscles to begin contracting to cause a bowel movement. Doctors might suggest that an individual take laxatives when constipation ensues due to issues such as pregnancy, lack of physical exercise, poor nutrition, or when specific medications impact normal digestion. In general, the consumption of laxatives is only intended for the short-term, yet many people take these medications outside of the prescribing guidelines of a professional.
Those who abuse these medications often do not pay mind to the risks that they can produce, focusing instead solely on the weight loss that they can achieve. The abuse of laxatives can cause an addiction to the feeling of being cleansed of food. Obtaining care for this form of abuse is often required in order for individuals to avoid the damaging physical and psychological effects linked to the abuse of these medications.
Myths about Laxative Abuse
Laxative abuse often comes from the idea that the use of these medications is effective in helping lose weight. However, there are a variety of myths connected to the use of these substances, including the following:
Calories are not absorbed in the body when laxatives are consumed: When an individual eats food or consumes beverages, digestion immediately begins. Even with the use of laxatives, the body absorbs food and drink quickly, far before they even reach the intestines. Therefore, by the time a bowel movement is brought on by a laxative, the majority of the calories have already been consumed for energy purposes.
Laxatives quickly decrease body weight: Since a bowel movement that is being induced by laxatives does not contain an exceptional amount of food, what an individual is really passing is water that has been collected in the colon after consuming the laxative. The weight loss that one thinks he or she is losing is really just the loss of water weight that can be quickly restored by drinking water.
Because laxatives are sold over-the-counter, they are safe: Similar to other substances that are consumed over-the-counter, there are risks involved with the use of laxatives, especially because taking them can alter one’s normal bodily functions. Continual use of laxatives can lead to permanent organ damage as well as additional health issues that can be painful, hard to treat, and possibly permanent.
Disorders Associated with Laxative Abuse
The regular use of laxatives often shows that an individual is battling with an eating disorder. Whether the laxative abuse brings about the development of disordered eating or if it becomes a means of continuing on with harmful eating habits, the abuse of these substances hardly ever occurs without the behaviors and thought processes that go along with an eating disorder. The most common eating disorders for those who struggle with laxative abuse are binge-eating disorder, bulimia nervosa, and anorexia nervosa.
Bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder both include eating a great deal of food and then turning over to a number of methods to rid their bodies of the food they have consumed. Anorexia nervosa is different in that individuals will starve themselves or restrict food to the extent where they grow dangerously malnourished. However, all three of these disorders have one common denominator, which is one’s fear of gaining weight. When the threat of weight gain occurs, the anxiety connected to these disorders can cause an individual to make the unhealthy choice of abusing laxatives.
Signs and Symptoms of Laxative Abuse
The most common signs and symptoms of laxative abuse can vary based on the length of time one has been abusing these substances, as well as the amount of laxatives that have been consumed. Below are some of the behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms that occur when an individual abuses laxatives:
- Developing ritualistic behavior patterns around the use of laxatives
- Avoiding certain situations in which laxatives cannot be used
- Hiding laxatives so as to conceal the abuse of these drugs
- Purchasing laxatives on a regular basis, often times at different stores
- Lying about laxative use
- Consuming increased amounts of laxatives over time
- Frequent bowl movements
- Switching between different types of laxatives when one does not retain its desired effect
- Drying of intestinal tract
- Rectal bleeding
- Stomach pain
- Mineral and electrolyte imbalances
- Severe dehydration
- Tolerance to laxatives
- Preoccupation with laxative use
- Poor impulse control
- Euphoria, which occurs after the removal of bowels
- Obsessions / compulsions to use laxatives
- Anxious feeling when one cannot use or acquire laxatives
- Feelings of guilt
- Feelings of shame
- Feelings of regret
Effects of Laxative Abuse
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Colon cancer
- Nerve damage in the colon and/or heart
- Muscle weakness and/or damage to the colon and/or heart
- Stretched or “lazy” colon
- Kidney damage
- Liver damage
- Fainting spells
- Blurred vision
- Colon infection
Treatment for Laxative Abuse
Since laxative abuse rarely occurs without a form of disordered eating, individuals should obtain treatment that includes care for eating disorders so that they can have an increased chance at putting an end to their laxative abuse. When an individual stops his or her laxative abuse, water retention and constipation often occur. Since those who abuse laxatives tend to enjoy the effect of feeling cleansed of food, these two side effects can be mentally upsetting to a point where one requires medical attention to avoid any more physical harm. While under the care of medical and mental health professionals, those struggling with laxative abuse can be supervised and treated in the most effective manner possible. By participating in professional treatment that provides residential, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient programming, those battling with laxative abuse can focus solely on healing in an environment that is conducive the recovery. These types of treatment options can help individuals addicted to the use of laxatives to learn more about a healthy lifestyle, stop dangerous patterns of behaviors, thinking, and disordered eating, and obtain valuable skills needed to help maintain a solid wellbeing, overall. Lastly, intensive treatment can offer an individual access to psychiatric services, therapeutic interventions, and nutritional counseling that can help bring about positive recovery.