Laxative Abuse and Co-Occurring Eating Disorders

Man in shower

When many people think of substance abuse, it is easy to assume the many stigmas that are associated with addiction; such as a person has a lack of self control. However, there is much more that substance abuse addiction than meets the eye, and a variety of complex factors are likely to influence the development of these behaviors in a person.

Rather than attempting to pass off an addiction as nothing more than a lack of “willpower” or self-control, or the urge to overindulge in something, understanding the complexity of these diseases can help a person better access the care and treatment they need for recovery.

Understanding Co-Occurring Addiction

Another aspect that is commonly misunderstood about addictions are the nature of these diseases. Many individuals who struggle with substance abuse addiction are dealing with much more than might appear at surface level.

In fact, many people who have an addiction to drugs or alcohol are also experiencing a co-occurring mental illness, such as an anxiety disorder, depression, personality disorder, eating disorder or the like.

Identified as co-occurring disorders, substance abuse addiction and mental disorders like eating disorders are common but much more complex to address and treat. However, identifying and treating both conditions is essential for healing and recovery.

Connection Between Co-Occurring Eating Disorders and Addiction

Person getting ice cream from self serve place

Eating disorders are severe psychiatric illnesses that often develop alongside an addiction. Eating disorders include the diseases anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Among the eating disorders, bulimia nervosa is more commonly associated with substance abuse addiction compared to other mental illnesses.

Research has demonstrated that substance use disorders are in fact higher among women with bulimia nervosa compared to that of women in the general population [1]. Furthermore, studies have identified that individuals who struggle with bulimia nervosa may abuse a wide range of substances, including prescription medications, alcohol, street drugs, as well as non-psychoactive substances, such as diet pills, emetics, diuretics, and laxatives [1].

Understanding the Nature of Bulimia Nervosa

Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that is defined by several criteria, more specifically the reoccurring binge eating and purging episodes. Individuals with bulimia nervosa will typically binge on an abnormally large amount of food (usually over a short period of time), and follow the binging episode with some form of purging.

Purging can occur through self-induced vomiting, excessive exercise, diuretic use, or laxative abuse. A person with bulimia nervosa will attempt to “compensate” for the food that was ingested in their binging episode through a purging mechanisms, and this vicious cycle can reoccur multiple times throughout the days and/or weeks.

The psychological and emotional influences on these types of behaviors are very strong. In fact, binging and purging has little to do with the food itself, though this may appear to be the case.

A person with bulimia may attempt to “purge” their body of calories ingested through excessive laxative use, thinking that the body will rid itself of food and calories through increased bowel movements.

It is also mistakenly believed that laxative use can “push” food quicker through the stomach and bowels or interfere with the amount of calories that the body might actually absorb.

When laxatives are used for this intention, this can result in serious and dangerous medical complications.

Health Consequences of Laxative Abuse

Bowel movements that are induced by excessive laxative abuse can result in a loss of several crucial nutrients that are essential to the normal function of the body, including vitamins, minerals, water, and fiber.

While waste is eliminated through this process, the body is also losing essential nutrients through excessive laxative use as well, which can result in a myriad of health consequences, including:

  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte/mineral imbalances
  • Gastrointestinal disturbances
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Cardiovascular complications

If laxative abuse is associated with an eating disorder, it is especially important to seek out comprehensive help and treatment for recovery. If left untreated, laxative abuse can result in fatal consequences. Eating disorders should also be addressed appropriately with professional treatment in order to help a person find full recovery and healing.



{1}: Health Research Funding, “24 Remarkable Caffeine Consumption Statistics”,

Crystal Karges photo

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 22, 2016
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About Baxter Ekern

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