Americans are desperate to lose weight, spending more than $60 billion per year on diet and weight loss products. The fact that many people, especially those with eating disorders, turn to laxatives to lose weight, further illuminates the desperation. While laxatives have legitimate medical uses, prolonged or abusive use can have serious consequences.
Laxative use dates back at least to ancient Egypt, when healers used a variety of ingredients to treat medical conditions including bloating, gas and indigestion. One Egyptian laxative recipe called for boiling cumin, goose fat and milk together, straining and then drinking the concoction, according to teh website for the Discovery Channel.
Approximately 8 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder, and eating disorders have higher mortality rates than any other mental health condition. Laxative abuse for weight loss is particularly prevalent among those suffering from bulimia, but it is also associated with anorexia, says the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness.
According to the Mayo Clinic, there are five main types of laxatives: bulk-forming, stimulant, hyperosmotic, lubricants and stool softeners.. Bulk-forming laxatives work by adding mass and water to stool and take up to 72 hours to work. Stimulant laxatives irritate the colon, stimulating it to move the stool along. Hyperosmotic laxatives pull water into the stool from the surrounding tissue, which softens the stool and encourages movement. Lubricants cover the stool and surrounding tissue with a slick waterproof substance that keeps the stool soft and speeds movement. Stool softeners prevent stool from drying out, allowing normal elimination. Natural laxatives include castor oil, prunes, and rhubarb. Exercise also naturally stimulates the bowels.
Laxatives are designed to prevent or relieve constipation by stimulating bowel movement. Because laxatives affect a part of the digestive tract responsible for elimination rather than absorption, they have no effect on body fat or permanent weight loss. They can cause temporary weight loss by evacuating stool from the body and lowering fluid levels, according to the Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness.
Laxative abuse for weight loss purposes is extremely dangerous, according to the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. Symptoms of laxative abuse include physical and psychological dependency, reduced bowel function, cramping, uncontrollable diarrhea, stomach ulcers, fluid retention in the extremities, face and stomach, bloody stool, renal stones, malnutrition from malabsorption, fatigue and electrolyte imbalances that can lead to heart failure. Laxative abuse is also linked to higher rates of colon cancer, says the Women's Center for Healthy Living. Use of over-the-counter or prescription laxatives for more than one week is not recommended, unless advised by your doctor.