Laxatives are a type of medication used by people to relieve constipation. People without constipation sometimes take laxatives in the belief that these drugs will help them lose weight.
The use of weight loss laxatives is not safe or effective. There are other, more healthy ways to lose weight and maintain the desired body weight.
In this article, we examine whether weight loss aid laxatives. We also discuss the safety of using weight loss laxatives, alternative weight loss strategies, and when to see a doctor.
Does the laxatives cause weight loss?
Doctors do not recommend laxatives as a way of losing weight. Research suggests that while some people mistakenly believe that taking laxatives will prevent their body from absorbing calories, it is an unsafe and inefficient strategy.
Laxatives treat constipation by softening the stool or by stimulating bowel movements. People may assume that passing more stools will result in weight loss.
However, although people may feel “lighter” temporarily, there is no evidence to support the use of laxatives as a safe or effective method of weight loss.
Laxatives cause water loss, not weight loss
The temporary weight loss that people may experience from taking laxatives is actually due to a loss of water. Losing water is not the same thing as losing body fat.
Many laxatives work by helping the intestine to absorb more water from the body or by keeping water in the intestines around the stool. This water softens the stool, making it easier to get through. It can also cause diarrhea, which is a very watery stool.
As this additional water passes through the stool, a person may weigh less when using laxatives. This effect, however, is only temporary.
Laxatives do not reduce body fat or encourage long-term weight loss. Even at high doses, stimulating laxatives that promote the movement of stools through the digestive tract have only a “modest” effect on calorie absorption.
Safety and risks
There are many laxatives available in the constipation treatment counter. Misuse of weight loss laxatives may cause the following side effects:
People are usually using laxatives to relieve constipation. If a person takes or uses laxatives too often when they are not constipated, these drugs may cause diarrhea.
Some people who frequently use laxatives may experience alternating diarrhea and constipation.
Osmotic laxatives draw water from the body to the intestine to soften the stool. Taking or taking too many osmotic laxatives may cause dehydration.
Other forms of laxatives may also cause frequent diarrhea leading to dehydration.
Common signs of dehydration include:
- decreased urination
- dry mouth
Taking laxatives may result in an electrolyte imbalance. Certain types of laxatives may cause the body to absorb high amounts of electrolytes from the intestines, such as sodium and phosphorus. Some laxatives may also lead to low levels of potassium, magnesium, or calcium in the blood.
Electrolyte imbalance can cause weakness and abnormal heart rhythm. In severe cases, having an electrolyte imbalance may be life threatening.
Impaired intestinal function
Some laxatives can stimulate the muscles in the intestine, helping them to promote stool movement. Taking any stimulant laxatives too often may cause dependence.
More research is needed on this effect, but some experts believe that the intestine may become increasingly dependent on stimulation. As a result, it may eventually stop moving food along the digestive tract on its own.
The use of laxatives often may also irritate the intestinal lining, potentially putting a person at risk of having bloody stools.
Time to see a doctor
Achieving and maintaining healthy weight can reduce the risk factors for major health problems, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. However, it is vital to lose weight in a safe and sustainable manner.
Sometimes, trying to lose weight can have an adverse effect on a person’s physical and mental well-being. Trying to address negative self-images through weight loss without any mental health strategies can make things worse.
For some people, improper weight loss strategies can lead to eating disorders. Signs and symptoms that may indicate eating disorders include:
- being preoccupied with weight loss
- being focused solely on calories, fat content, or carbohydrate content
- refusing certain food types
- developing rituals around food
- skipping meals or reducing portion sizes excessively
- withdrawing from social activities
- being overly concerned with body size or shape
- having mood swings
- looking in the mirror frequently in a critical way
- losing or gaining weight rapidly
- having frequent gastrointestinal problems
- having trouble concentrating
- feeling cold all the time
- having trouble sleeping
- developing dry or thin skin or hair
- fainting or feeling dizzy
It is possible to have a few of these symptoms without having a eating disorder. However, anyone who is concerned that they or someone they know may have a eating disorder should talk to a doctor.
Safe weight loss strategies
Taking laxatives for weight loss is not a safe strategy. Drastic and restrictive diet does not work in the long term for most people.
The most effective way to achieve a healthy weight is to make sustainable lifestyle changes.
- eating a nutritious, balanced diet that consists mostly of whole foods
- increasing physical activity each day
- doing regular exercise
- practicing self-care to improve body image
- talk therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy
Anyone who feels they may need to lose weight should tell a doctor if this is important for their safety. The doctor can advise a person on what is the best range of weight for them. Among other things this range may depend on their height and shape of body.
It is not safe or effective to use the laxatives for weight loss. If a person weighs less after taking laxatives, this is likely due to loss of water.
Loss of water from laxative use is temporary, and is not the same as loss of body fat. Long-term, laxatives don’t decrease body weight.
Laxatives have several potential side effects including fatigue and diarrhea.
Eating a nutritious diet and regular exercise will help a person achieve his or her desired weight. However, before starting a new diet or exercise regimen they should talk to a doctor about whether weight loss is necessary for their health.
Weight loss is only beneficial to the well-being of a person when necessary and they do so safely. Anyone experiencing problems with their body image should seek a doctor’s support, which can help them access the right support.