Abuse of Laxatives: Signs and Symptoms

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Millions in the U.S. suffer from constipation, leading many to turn to laxatives for relief. While these can be beneficial when used correctly, there’s a growing concern about laxative abuse, which can manifest as recurring bouts of chronic constipation and diarrhea, gastrointestinal disturbances, tremors, cramping, and even blood in stools. The serious health risks posed by such abuse, necessitates attention and understanding.

Understanding the Nature of Laxative Abuse

Because of the sensitivity of the subject, experiencing this condition is not something that might be easily discussed, even to the most trusted health care professionals.

Many individuals who struggle with constipation may attempt to “self-treat” the problem by purchasing and taking over the counter medications, including stool-softeners, bulk-forming agents, and laxatives.

Laxatives can come in many forms, including tablets, powders, granules, and liquids. Consumers to help ease or treat symptoms associated with constipation may commonly purchase laxatives.

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Like any over the counter medication or prescription drug, a substance can be misused, abused, or addictive, including laxatives. A person might become physically and/or emotionally addicted to used laxatives, and this can result in many adverse effects and medical complications.

Laxative abuse is commonly associated with the severe psychiatric illness bulimia nervosa, in which individuals engage in repetitive binging and purging cycles, where abnormal quantities of food are ingested, followed by purging (through self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, compulsive exercise, and more).

It may seem odd that a person might be misusing laxatives, considering the various types of medications and substances that are currently available. However, laxative abuse is a serious disorder that should not be taken lightly and should be properly addressed by a comprehensive treatment.

Signs and Symptoms of Laxative Abuse

If you suspect that you or someone you care for might be abusing laxatives, be aware of the following signs and symptoms:

  • Recurring bouts of chronic constipation and diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances, such as chronic bloating, heartburn, and gas
  • Tremors and spasms
  • Cramping and/or shaking muscles
  • Blood in stools
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Feeling as though a bowel movement cannot be experienced without the use of laxatives
  • Cardiovascular complications resulting from severe electrolyte imbalances

Understanding How Laxative Abuse Can Impact the Body

Laxative abuse can be particularly dangerous as it affects not only the digestive system, but other organs as well. The heart for example, can be impacted by electrolyte imbalances resulting from dehydration from laxative abuse. This can lead to weakness, heart palpitations, fainting, disorientation, or even a heart attack. If left untreated, laxative abuse can be fatal.

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For individuals who are attempting to treat chronic constipation, it may seem that increasing laxative use can help the issue, but in reality, chronic overuse of laxatives can actually worsen the condition of constipation.

Like with any medication misuse, it would be important to wean the body off of laxatives slowly and under the guidance as professionals, and laxative abuse will likely cause physiological imbalances in the body.

Laxative Abuse and Eating Disorders

One of the significant associations of laxative abuse is its link with eating disorders, primarily bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa. Eating disorders are severe mental health conditions where individuals become excessively preoccupied with their body weight and shape. This can lead to harmful behaviors in an attempt to control or reduce weight.

In the context of eating disorders, laxatives are frequently misused as a method of purging. Individuals might falsely believe that they can quickly “get rid of” calories consumed during binge eating episodes by expelling waste through the use of laxatives. This is a misconception, as by the time laxatives affect the large intestine, most food and calories have already been absorbed in the small intestine.

Seeking Help and Treatment

It may be difficult to share a struggle with laxative abuse, given the sensitivity of the subject and complexity of the issue. However, if you are struggling with laxative abuse, it is crucial to seek out professional help to address this concerning issue.

You might benefit from working with a medical doctor, who can help address any physical issues you might have, in addition to a counselor or psychiatrist, who can help you better process any underlying issues that may be related to laxative abuse and/or addiction.

Healing the body of any chronic condition takes time, and if you are struggling with a complex medical issue, do not attempt to take matters into your own hands. Seek the help of professionals who can guide you through these issues and ultimately support your journey in finding healing.


[1]: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, “Treatment for Constipation”, http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/digestive-diseases/constipation/Pages/treatment.aspx

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About the Author: Crystal is a Masters-level Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a specialty focus in eating disorders, maternal/child health and wellness, and intuitive eating. Combining clinical experience with a love of social media and writing, Crystal serves as the Special Projects Coordinator for Eating Disorder Hope/Addiction Hope, where her passion to help others find recovery and healing is integrated into each part of her work.

As a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Crystal has dedicated her career to helping others establish a healthy relationship with food and body through her work with EDH/AH and nutrition private practice.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on February 21, 2016
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.