AUTHORITY NUTRITION

Laxatives for Weight Loss: Do They Work and Are They Safe?

Written by Rachael Link, MS, RD on October 15, 2017

Many people turn to laxatives when they’re looking to lose weight fast.

However, there are serious concerns over the safety and effectiveness of using laxatives for weight loss.

This article will look at the safety of laxatives and whether they can really help you lose weight.

What Are Laxatives?

Small Blue Pills

Laxatives are medications people use to help stimulate bowel movements or loosen up stool to ease its passage.

They are often used to treat constipation, a condition caused by infrequent, painful or difficult bowel movements.

They have also become a popular method for weight loss. Many people believe that using laxatives can help increase the frequency of bowel movements and allow for quick, easy and effortless weight loss.

However, the truth of their safety and effectiveness is another story, as you’ll see later in this article.

There are a few different classes of laxatives that work in different ways. The main types are (1):

  • Stimulant laxatives: These work by speeding up the movement of the digestive tract.
  • Osmotic-type laxatives: This type causes the colon to retain more water, which increases bowel movement frequency.
  • Bulk-forming laxatives: These move through the intestines undigested, absorbing water and adding bulk to stool.
  • Saline laxatives: With these, water is drawn into the small intestine, which helps promote a bowel movement.
  • Lubricant laxatives: This type of laxative coats the surface of the stool as well as the lining of the intestines to ease bowel movements.
  • Stool softeners: These allow stool to absorb more water, making it softer for easier passage.
Summary: Laxatives help stimulate bowel movements. They’re a remedy for constipation as well as a popular tool for weight loss. Different types of laxatives help induce bowel movements in different ways.

Laxatives Could Help You Lose Water Weight

Laxative use has become incredibly common among those looking to shed a few pounds quickly. In fact, some studies estimate that more than 4% of the general population engages in laxative abuse (2).

It is true that laxatives may help increase weight loss, but the results are only temporary.

Several types of laxatives work by pulling water from your body into the intestines, allowing stool to absorb more water for an easier passage. With this method, the only weight you’ll lose is from the water you excrete through stool (1).

One small study measured the daily food intake and eating habits of 30 patients with bulimia nervosa, a type of eating disorder that involves eating large amounts of food and then using methods such as self-induced vomiting or laxatives to prevent weight gain.

Compared to other methods used by these patients, researchers found that laxative use was an ineffective method for controlling body weight (3).

Another study also concluded that laxatives were not effective at controlling weight, noting that laxative use was more prevalent among overweight and obese teenagers than those of a normal weight (4).

To date, there have been no studies supporting the idea that laxative use can lead to lasting weight loss.

Instead, it can lead to dangerous side effects like dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and possibly even dependence.

Summary: Laxative use can result in a temporary loss of water weight. However, studies suggest this is not an effective method for long-term weight loss.

Using Laxatives Can Lead to Dehydration

One of the most common side effects of laxative use is dehydration.

This is because many laxatives work by drawing water into the intestines from other tissues, resulting in a loss of water through the stool (1).

If you're not careful to replenish the water that is lost, it can lead to dehydration.

Common symptoms of dehydration include headaches, reduced urine output, increased thirst, fatigue, dry skin and dizziness.

Dehydration may also be linked to more serious side effects, mentioned later in this article.

Summary: Some types of laxatives work by pulling water into the intestines and stool, resulting in a loss of water and potentially dangerous dehydration.

Laxatives May Cause an Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolytes are substances dissolved in your bodily fluids that are important for helping your cells and tissues function normally (5).

Some common electrolytes include chloride, sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphate.

If the balance of these essential electrolytes is thrown off, it can cause dangerous side effects including seizures, confusion and coma.

Laxatives may lead to the loss of important electrolytes. This could create an electrolyte imbalance, one of the most dangerous side effects of laxative abuse (6, 7).

One small study of 24 patients showed that laxative use resulted in significant alterations in participants’ levels of sodium and potassium (8).

Another study in 2,270 people showed that the laxatives commonly used to prepare for colonoscopies increased the risk of electrolyte disturbances (9).

Common symptoms of electrolyte imbalance can include thirst, headaches, heart palpitations, fatigue, weakness and muscle aches.

Summary: Laxative use can alter the balance of electrolytes in the body and can cause many adverse side effects, such as fatigue, muscle aches and heart palpitations.

Some Worry That Overuse Could Cause Dependency

Although laxatives are generally safe for short-term use, some people worry they may lead to dependency with long-term use.

This may be especially true for stimulant laxatives, which work by speeding up the movement of the intestinal tract to induce a bowel movement.

However, most reports of laxative dependency are anecdotal.

Despite some reports of individuals developing a tolerance to or becoming dependent on stimulant laxatives, there is little evidence showing these effects actually happen (10).

In fact, some researchers have noted that tolerance to stimulant laxatives is uncommon and that there is minimal chance of dependency (11).

More research is needed to evaluate the effects of long-term laxative use and the risk of dependency.

Summary: There are some anecdotal reports of laxative dependency with long-term use. However, more studies are needed on the potential side effects of long-term laxative use.

Other Possible Side Effects of Laxatives

In addition to causing dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and possible dependence, laxative use has been associated with a number of other dangerous side effects, including:

  • Rhabdomyolysis: One case study showed that laxative abuse may have induced rhabdomyolysis, causing the rapid deterioration of muscle tissue and the release of a harmful protein into the bloodstream (12).
  • Gastrointestinal damage: A small study found that some recovered anorexia patients had changes in gastrointestinal function and long-term pancreatic damage as a result of former laxative use (13).
  • Liver damage: A case study reported that laxative use contributed to liver damage in one patient (14).
  • Kidney failure: Another case study showed that overusing laxatives appeared to have caused severe kidney failure requiring dialysis, a treatment that helps remove waste and toxins from the blood (15).

However, more research is needed on the potential long-term effects and safety of laxative use.

Summary: A few studies have linked laxative use to serious conditions including rhabdomyolysis, gastrointestinal damage, liver damage and kidney failure, though more research is needed.

Better Ways to Lose Weight

If you are using unhealthy weight loss methods like laxatives, purging or severe food restriction, stop and seek professional help to prevent long-term consequences to your health.

There are many better, safer and more effective ways to lose weight without putting your health on the line.

Here are some simple, proven ways to shed extra pounds:

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables: They’re low in calories, but rich in fiber. A higher intake of fruits and vegetables has been associated with a lower body weight (16, 17).
  • Increase your physical activity: Participating in aerobic exercise a few times per week can aid in weight loss and help prevent weight regain (18).
  • Reduce your portion sizes: Smaller portions mean fewer calories. One study even found that simply using smaller plates caused participants to eat less (19).
  • Eat a high-protein breakfast: Starting your day with a protein-packed breakfast has been shown to reduce appetite and food intake over the course of the day (20).
  • Decrease your intake of added sugars: Sugar is high in calories, low in nutrients and leads to weight gain. Research shows that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages may be associated with obesity (21).

If you want even more ideas, check out this article, which lists 30 easy, science-backed ways to lose weight.

Summary: Safer and more effective methods to lose weight include eating more fruits and vegetables, exercising more, reducing portion sizes, eating a high-protein breakfast and decreasing your intake of added sugar.

The Bottom Line

Laxatives can be an effective remedy for increasing bowel movements and preventing constipation. However, laxative use is unlikely to lead to long-lasting weight loss.

Furthermore, laxative abuse can come with many dangerous health effects, including dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and dangerous health conditions.

If you're looking to lose weight, make small changes to your diet and engage in regular physical activity. These solutions are safer, more effective and more sustainable in the long run.

An evidence-based nutrition article from our experts at Authority Nutrition.

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