Laxative abuse is common amongst people with eating disorders. Beat, the leading charity for eating disorder in the UK, found that 80% of young people with eating disorders had misused laxatives. The belief many people hold is that they can help you lose weight by getting rid of the food you eaten faster and therefore reduces the time your body can absorb the calories and fat from the food. This, however, is a myth. Laxatives affect your large intestine; calories and fat are absorbed in your small intestine. So why do people use laxatives as a form of weight control if they have no effect on how many calories and how much fat is absorbed?
80% of young people with eating disorders had misused laxatives
The large intestines absorb water and electrolytes, and laxatives reduce the amount of water and electrolytes that are absorbed. This gives the illusion of weight loss as the amount of water in the body is reduced. But why does this matter if the number on the scale is smaller? Taking too many laxatives can have serious consequences for your body. Laxatives prevent enough electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium, from being absorbed. Deprivation of these can stop nerves and muscles from functioning, and this includes the heart. People who abuse laxatives may often experience heart palpitations as a result. Dehydration is another big problem which often requires medical treatment as it can cause tremors, blurred vision, fainting, kidney damage and potentially death. Laxative abuse can actually cause constipation which is often how people end up increasing the amount of laxatives they need to take. Taking high amounts of laxatives for a sustained period of time can cause serious damage to the functioning of the colon.
Laxative abuse can induce dehydration, which in turn can cause tremors, blurred vision, fainting, kidney damage and potentially death
The misconception around the use of laxatives and actual weight loss is amplified by online retailers selling laxative products under the beauty section. There are serious dangers to buying laxative products online, as the products do not have to go from the same medical checks as laxatives that are bought in shops. However, this does not mean that laxatives in shop are safe. Many people are mislead into thinking that laxatives are not harmful because they can often be given the title of ‘herbal’, however this is not the case and people are not fully aware of the quantity and quality of what they are putting into their bodies.
Here at Southampton University the Student Run Self Help organisation (SRSH) is currently campaigning to increase the restrictions around how many laxatives you can buy at once and raise awareness around the growing problem. Beat is also campaigning to increase the restrictions on sales of laxatives and the British Pharmacological Society is supportive of their stance.
What can you do to stop abusing laxatives? Speak to your GP for medical advice, it may be that you can stop taking them immediately or you may need to reduce your intake slowly. To support your body in returning to its own normal function it is important to drink often, aim to drink 8-10 glasses of water a day. Eat regularly and foods which promote bowl movements such as whole grains, vegetables and fruits. When stopping laxatives it can be common to experience bloating, water retention, and constipation.
For further support you can contact the Student Run Self Help support group which runs every other Tuesday. Do not hesitate to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find out more information about the SRSH’s laxative abuse campaign on facebook by searching laxative abuse campaign Southampton.