Eating Disorders & Disordered Eating

How to stop taking laxatives: eating disorder recovery

January 17, 2024

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Medically reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

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Contents
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Key Points

  • More than half of all people with eating disorders have misused laxatives at some point.
  • Laxative abuse has serious long-term implications for overall health.
  • Recovering from a laxative dependency takes time, dietary, and lifestyle changes.
  • A Registered Dietitian can offer personalized guidance on what’s right for your gut health.

If you have been struggling with an eating disorder, you might have resorted to regular laxative use to address digestive problems like constipation or bloating. 

People with eating disorders may also mistakenly turn to laxatives to help them lose weight, even though there’s no evidence to support this notion.

If you would like freedom from the constant urge to use laxatives and restore your gut health, know that recovery is possible. It may take time and may not be easy, but it is possible.

Here, let’s explore:

  • What leads to laxative misuse
  • How it’s connected to eating disorders
  • If laxatives actually help you lose weight
  • The impact of laxative abuse on health
  • How to stop using laxatives regularly.

What is laxative abuse?

Laxative abuse, or laxative misuse, occurs when someone takes an excessive amount of laxatives to manage their weight.

While closely associated with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, individuals without eating disorders may also misuse laxatives for rapid weight loss or to address persistent constipation.

How is laxative misuse connected to eating disorders?

Studies show that more than half of people with eating disorders have misused laxatives at some point in their lives.

People with eating disorders often struggle with concerns related to body image, weight, feelings of shame and guilt regarding food, and a diminished sense of self-worth.

Rita Faycurry RD, an experienced Registered Dietitian, explains, “People with bulimia may mistakenly use laxatives to stimulate the bowels to purge foods before nutrients like fat and carbohydrates are absorbed.”

An eating disorder like anorexia can lead to constipation because there is very little food being eaten. People with anorexia may try to deal with this constipation through laxatives.

In addition to using laxatives, individuals with eating disorders may misuse diuretics (medicines that decrease fluid retention) or engage in self-induced vomiting.

Do laxatives help you lose weight?

Rita Faycurry, RD, says, “The short answer is no, laxatives do not result in weight loss. This type of thinking is based on a myth. By the time laxatives start acting on the colon, the body has already absorbed the ‘calories’ and nutrients from the digested food. Additionally, laxative misuse makes you lose water and important electrolytes and leads to a whole host of other health issues.”

Tired of depending on laxatives and want to restore your health? Use Fay to find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by insurance.

What are the health effects of laxative abuse?

Severe dehydration

Laxative abuse can lead to severe dehydration. Our bodies must keep the right balance of sodium, potassium, and magnesium to make sure our nerves, muscles, and organs work well.

Laxatives remove water, minerals, and electrolytes from the body, causing dehydration. This disrupts the delicate balance of electrolytes over time and can impact how well our colon, kidneys, and even how our heart works.

Signs of severe dehydration include dizziness, fainting, a racing heart, and producing dark urine or not urinating at all. You may also experience weakness, blurry vision, and even kidney damage.

Constipation

The fact that laxatives may lead to constipation may surprise many people. After all, aren’t laxatives used to treat constipation?

The answer is yes—laxatives help you deal with constipation in the short term. Commonly used laxatives work by stimulating the muscles of the intestine to move food through.

However, overuse of laxatives can lead to laxative dependency or a ‘lazy gut’ where digestion slows down, causing constipation. In these cases, the colon stops responding to a lower dose of laxatives and needs higher doses.

Eventually, the colon may get stretched and infected, and may even lead to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Other health problems from laxative misuse include:

  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Bleeding (blood in stool from laxative abuse can lead to anemia)
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Infection
  • Flatulence
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
  • Kidney failure, and much more.

Additionally, a study shows that people who use laxatives regularly are at a 50% higher risk of developing dementia than those who do not.

You can restore your health after laxative abuse. Fay gets you quick access to experienced Registered Dietitian Nutritionists near you, covered by insurance.

How does laxative abuse affect your mental health?

Eating disorders are mental health conditions, and regular laxative use can make your symptoms worse.

Rita Faycurry explains, “Laxative abuse has been linked to a history of depression and anxiety. Similarly, low self-esteem and body dysmorphia are also connected. Another issue is that frequent laxative use can impair your gut, where over 90% of your ‘happy’ hormone serotonin is produced. This condition may worsen pre-existing mental health conditions.”

How to stop taking laxatives?

Recovery from laxative abuse is a gradual process.

1. Reduce dependency on laxatives slowly

If you have been dependent on laxatives for a prolonged period, your digestive system may not be able to produce bowel movements on its own immediately. You may have to reduce your laxative dosage gradually.

Please see a healthcare provider or Registered Dietitian for advice on how to do this safely.

2. Eat consistently

Eat three consistent meals or six smaller meals during the day at regular intervals. Include whole vegetables, fruit, whole grains, bran, nuts, and seeds to stimulate your gut naturally.  

3. Stay hydrated

Consider drinking more water throughout the day. Being well-hydrated helps you regularize your bowel movements. Try reducing your alcohol and caffeine intake at the same time to help reduce your risk of dehydration.

4. Get moving

Physical activity helps ease constipation, stimulate bowel movements, and help you on your journey towards better health.

5. Restore gut microbiome

Studies show that regular laxative use is a sign of impaired gut microbiome.

Depending on your gut condition and food sensitivities, a Registered Dietitian can provide guidance on whether probiotics are necessary for you and, if recommended, which specific ones may be most effective for your health.

Probiotics promote gut health by introducing beneficial bacteria to the digestive system. They help maintain a balanced microbial environment, aiding digestion and nutrient absorption. Probiotics can also support the immune system and may alleviate issues like irritable bowel syndrome.

There are natural probiotics that you may introduce to your diet. They include:

  • Yogurt, a powerful probiotic
  • Sauerkraut, fermented cabbage
  • Kimchi, a Korean dish of fermented foods, mainly cabbage
  • Miso, a Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybeans
  • Pickles, fermented cucumbers in salt and water (note: pickles are high in sodium)

6. Get support from a Registered Dietitian to recover from laxative misuse

Our gut microbiome is like a fingerprint—there’s no other exactly like it in the world. It has trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms commonly known as the gut microbiome.

Fixing our gut health involves careful evaluation of what foods, right portion sizes and meal plans work best for each person. It’s even more crucial for people with eating disorders who battled years of laxative misuse to seek help to restore their digestive health.

Get started on the road to laxative abuse recovery. Fay can help you find a Registered Dietitian near you, covered by insurance.


The views expressed by authors and contributors of such content are not endorsed or approved by Fay and are intended for informational purposes only. The content is reviewed by Fay only to confirm educational value and audience interest. You are encouraged to discuss any questions that you may have about your health with a healthcare provider.


Sources

Fay Nutrition has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

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Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Written by Chandana (Chandy) Balasubramanian

Chandana Balasubramanian is an experienced healthcare executive who writes on the intersection of healthcare and technology. She is the President of Global Insight Advisory Network and has a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA.

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Rita Faycurry, RD

Medically Reviewed by Rita Faycurry, RD

Rita Faycurry, RD is a board-certified Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in clinical nutrition for chronic conditions. Her approach to health is centered around the idea that the mind and body are intimately connected and that true healing requires an evidence-based and integrative approach that addresses the root cause of disease. In her books and articles, Rita offers practical tips and insights on how to care for your body, mind, and spirit to achieve optimal health and wellness.

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