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Laxative abuse – side effects, support and treatment

Laxative abuse is the act of misusing laxatives in order to feel empty, rid the body of calories and/or attempt to lose weight.

Studies have shown that over half of people with an eating disorder have misused laxatives at some point, so if you are doing so, you’re not alone. Laxative abuse is a common behaviour in eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, which can cause you to struggle with feeling full. Anorexia can also cause constipation, due to the small amounts of food typically consumed. Laxatives are also often misused by people with bulimia, as part of the purging process following a binge.

If you have been abusing laxatives, rather than using them as intended and within the medicinal guidelines as a treatment for constipation, you may be taking them much more regularly than is safe. Taking an excessive amount of laxatives, whether it’s in tablet, capsule, powder, liquid or gel form, can affect both your mental and physical health in many ways. We’ve outlined these below, to help you understand more about what you may be going through.

Side effects of laxative abuse

Laxative abuse is dangerous and has no effect on weight loss in itself. Contrary to belief, laxatives don’t immediately rid the body of calories. Instead, the laxatives eliminate elements from the body that are needed for healthy bodily function, such as water, minerals, and electrolytes.

There are a range of negative side effects to laxative abuse, which can become long-term risks to your health if misuse continues.

The short-term physical effects of laxative abuse include:

  • Severe dehydration
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Urinary tract infections

There are also the following long-term physical risks of laxative abuse:

  • Kidney damage and potential failure
  • Heart attacks
  • Inflamed pancreas
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Impaired bowel function
  • Colon infections
  • Increased risk of colon cancer
  • Death

In addition to this, there are severe psychological effects. As with any substance abuse, misusing laxatives can impact your brain function and mood, resulting in depression. If this happens, it can worsen overtime if help isn’t sought.

Mental health challenges like this can then weaken our ability to make healthy decisions for ourselves and our bodies. This can lead to a vicious cycle, where your laxative abuse continues and spirals out of control. In this situation, it is likely to cause ongoing, worsening damage to both your body and your mental health.

Professional support for laxative abuse

If you’re misusing laxatives and feel you’ve lost control of your behaviours around food, it’s important to reach out. Opening up to someone you trust will help you to acknowledge that you may have an eating disorder. It can also provide you with the emotional support you need as you take steps towards getting professional treatment.

Treatment for laxative abuse can involve various therapeutic options. The format you’ll undertake will depend on the level of support you require and any co-existing conditions you have, which can be determined during an additional assessment.

At Life Works, in addition to helping you become physically healthier, we can help you to understand the root cause of your reliance on laxatives and your eating disorder. Our therapy is delivered in different formats, depending on your needs:

Inpatient treatment

A residential eating disorder programme gives you the benefit of 24-hour care, with highly-qualified specialists. You’ll be able to share your experiences and challenges with a compassionate community of people on the same recovery journey as you. Our safe, caring environment also allows you to gain respite from your everyday routine so that you can focus on getting better.

Outpatient treatment

Outpatient treatment allows you to benefit from regular support, with weekly one-hour appointments you fit around your current commitments. It may be that your eating disorder doesn’t require intensive inpatient treatment, or you may have already attended a residential programme and are looking for ongoing therapeutic support.

Next steps for seeking laxative abuse treatment with Life Works

If you have been abusing laxatives, the most important thing for you to do is not to blame yourself. Many people with eating disorders use laxatives as a result of negative beliefs around the need to moderate their weight, change their image and suppress distressing thoughts. Showing yourself some compassion and understanding that you’re not alone in your challenges allows you to start practising being kinder towards yourself and your body.

At Life Works, we operate in a culture of understanding, without any judgement. We’ve already helped many people in your situation to overcome challenges around laxative abuse. As soon as you reach out to us, we can help you to start on the road to a healthier, happier future. Eating disorder treatment with Life Works will help you to start enjoying a better relationship with food and your body.

Contact Life Works Today

To discuss how the Life Works team can help to support individuals and families dealing with an eating disorder, please call: 01483 745 066 or click here to enquire online.

This page was medically reviewed by David Waller, (BACP, FDAP), Eating Disorder Programme Lead at Life Works.

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