- Laxatives are over-the-counter medications used to relieve constipation.
- In the past, the diet and weight loss industry suggested using laxatives to lose weight. This approach is unsafe, and shouldn’t be used.
- Evidence-based weight loss strategies should be followed instead. These include diet and lifestyle changes, and working with a registered dietitian specializing in weight management.
Laxatives are medications used to relieve constipation and can ease painful straining while going to the bathroom.
Their primary function is to clear bowel blockages; however, they also moonlight as weight loss aids.
This article will unpack everything you should know about using laxatives for weight loss, laxative abuse, side effects of overuse, and more sustainable weight management tips.
How Do Laxatives Work?
Many types of laxatives are widely available over the counter, and their ease of purchasing makes them accessible to everyone. Often, laxatives are taken orally in chewable tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids, while others are taken as suppositories which enter through the rectum.
Types of Laxatives
Laxative types are grouped by the way they affect your body. Here are five common types of laxatives and how they influence bowel movements:
1. Bulk-Forming Laxatives
These laxatives draw water into the stool and increase its weight and softness. This makes it easier to pass. An example of this product is psyllium husks.
2. Osmotic Agents
Taken orally in capsules or drinkable supplements. These laxatives are poorly absorbed and gather water into the bowel, which helps to soften stool. A common osmotic agent is milk of magnesia.
3. Prokinetic Agents
Prokinetic agents stimulate the movement of stool through the gut. This can be helpful for people who have been diagnosed with slow gut motility. An example of this product is Prucalopride, which is only available with a prescription.
As it sounds, lubricants add more moisture in the intestines to help stool pass. An example of this type of laxative is Mineral oil.
Similarly to prokinetic agents, stimulants increase muscle contractions to move stool through the intestines. An example is Senna.
Are Laxatives Good for Weight Loss?
The short answer⸺no, laxatives are an unsafe method to lose weight for several reasons.
Many believe these bowel-stimulating medications are effective for rapid fat loss. While laxatives can lead to weight loss, it’s not from fat loss, but from the loss of water.
Instead of containing calories and fat, laxative-induced stools are made up of electrolytes, minerals, water, and undigested fiber and wastes.
Rapidly losing large amounts of these nutrients can create electrolyte imbalances, making it difficult for your body to stabilize blood pressure and balance fluids. Further, these imbalances can threaten your kidney and cardiovascular functions.
Other healthy weight loss approaches include eating more plant-based foods or incorporating weight training exercises into your day. Strategies that are good for weight loss won’t harm your body but can help you adopt habits that will enhance your health and well-being.
What is Laxative Abuse?
Laxative abuse is a dangerous weight loss strategy involving the repeated use of laxatives to have bowel movements to get rid of unwanted calories.
In the past, laxatives (especially stimulants) were considered a quick fix to compensate for an episode of binge eating, but this practice is not recommended. Instead, consider meeting with an online dietitian specializing in binge eating to make healthy changes.
Laxatives Abuse and Eating Disorders
Laxative abuse continues to happen and is prevalent in 10-60% of people with eating disorders.
A 2020 long-term study published in the American Journal of Public Health investigated a possible link between laxatives and diet pill use in 10,058 young women and eating disorder diagnoses.
Women using diet pills and laxatives had greater chances of receiving an initial eating disorder diagnosis in one to three years than women who didn’t use these products.
Further, the side effects of laxative use can be severe and cause lifelong health consequences. People who rely on laxatives for weight loss should consult a multidisciplinary healthcare team for treatment.
Side Effects of Laxative Use
Regular use of laxatives in people without medical problems can be safe, but misusing laxatives can have health implications.
Side effects can present as bloating, gas, headache, nausea, and diarrhea or become more severe.
More serious effects of laxative toxicity are dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, laxative dependence, and impaired digestion.
Excess thirst, dry mouth and lips, weakness, and infrequent urination are several signs of dehydration.
Laxative-induced stools pull water from the body, and if the person misusing the laxative isn’t careful to replenish water losses, dehydration ensues and may require medical treatment.
Along with water losses, laxatives cause electrolyte and mineral losses. This is when essential nutrients such as potassium and sodium pass through the stool.
Fluctuations in these levels disrupt many body functions, giving rise to seizures, heart arrhythmias, and brain and nerve impairments.
Your body can get used to regular doses of laxatives and become less sensitive to the action of laxatives on the colon. You may require larger doses for speedy bowel movements.
Chronic laxative abuse may limit the normal function of intestinal nerves and muscles, making it hard to clear stools and causing constipation.
Disordered Eating Behaviors
A preoccupation with the amount of calories you eat and burn (or try to expel through laxative use) can be a sign of disordered eating.
People with disordered eating behaviors are at higher risk of developing a diagnosable eating disorder, but you can work with a registered dietitian to prevent this escalation.
Constipation and Diarrhea
Long-term laxative usage can alter your body’s natural ability to pass a bowel movement.
Stools can take longer to pass and you may become constipated more frequently, therefore requiring more medication.
Or, your gastrointestinal system will become very sensitive to the medication which can result in loose stools or diarrhea.
Are There Alternatives to Laxatives for Weight Loss?
Berberine is an ancient herb used in Chinese medicine to treat type 2 diabetes.
Research demonstrated that taking approximately 1000 mg to 1500 mg daily for a minimum of three months can stimulate metabolism and help your body burn energy.
As well as supplements, your doctor can review weight loss medications with you. Most of these products are injectable pens filled with drugs that suppress appetite.
Currently, the only FDA-approved medication is Victoza also called Saxenda.
Berberine and prescription weight loss medications are not appropriate for everyone. Your healthcare provider can recommend the safest option.
Losing Weight Safely and Effectively
Now that you understand the dangers of using laxatives, here are some quick tips on healthy weight management strategies that can enhance your nutrition.
Build Balanced Meals
The plate method takes the pain out of calorie counting and helps you build balanced meals by filling your plate with these easy-to-remember sections.
Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, one-quarter of lean protein, and the remaining quarter a whole grain or starchy vegetable.
Fill Up on Fiber
Fiber is a carbohydrate that can’t be fully digested. It helps with meal time satiety and regular bowel habits.
The top sources of fiber are berries, beans, green peas, and spelt. Men should have around 38 grams of fiber daily, and women can benefit from at least 25 grams daily.
Create Protein-Rich Snacks
High-sugar snacks like candy or cookies can spike blood sugar levels—which can set you up for a blood sugar crash. You may have experienced this before if you’ve ever felt sluggish after said snacks.
Healthy blood sugar levels are easier to attain when you add protein-rich foods to your plate.
Plus, when your blood sugars are in a healthy range, your hormones can function properly, making weight loss more achievable.
You can add protein to your eating plan by choosing Greek yogurt, sliced almonds, boiled eggs, and peanut butter can help you stabilize your blood sugar and create a snack that satisfies you.
Move Your Body
Everyone knows exercise has benefits, but the key to improving your health is finding activities you enjoy doing.
The general guidance is to exercise for a minimum of 150 minutes weekly and choose activities to get your heart pumping.
Whether joining a friend for a nature walk, taking a dance class, or doing workout videos online, it’s vital to move your body in ways you enjoy so you’re likely to keep it up.
Work With a Registered Dietitian
Medical experts agree that using laxatives for weight loss is dangerous and unhealthy.
If you’re currently using laxatives as part of your weight loss routine, or you’re considering taking a laxative to lose weight, Nourish can help.
Our dietitians will meet you with compassion and create a nonjudgmental space to help you identify better strategies that complement your health and well-being. We’ll help you make a step-by-step plan that’s personal to your lifestyle and needs.
Frequently Asked Questions
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