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Laxatives for Weight Loss: Do They Work? Are There Side Effects?

By Fitoru | 13 May 2019
smiling lady standing on weight scale

When you’re looking to lose weight quickly, there’s a lot of advice out there, and not all of it is safe and sound. Many seek out laxatives for weight loss, and this article discusses the effectiveness and safety of losing weight through the use of laxatives.

What Are Laxatives? How Do They Work?

Laxatives are meant to help ease conditions like constipation. They are medicines that help loosen and soften stool and stimulate bowel movements. Laxatives have often been popular methods of losing weight quickly, under the assumption that frequent bowel movements lead to effortless and fast weight loss. There are several types of laxatives, which we’ll discuss below. To see which, if any, are effective for weight loss, read on.

  • Stimulant laxativesThese laxatives include brands like Dulcolax and Senokot, and work by stimulating your digestive tract to speed along your waste. They do so by triggering contractions of the muscles in your GI tract, and can be found in oral medications or rectal suppositories.
  • Osmotic laxatives: Including products like Milk of Magnesia and Miralax, these laxatives work by drawing water into the tissues of your colon, which then helps to soften hard stool and increase the frequency of bowel movements.
  • Saline laxatives: Similar to osmotic laxatives, saline laxatives also draw water to your digestive tract, but this time to the small intestine to help promote bowel movement.
  • Lubricant laxatives: Laxatives like Fleet use oil (such as mineral oil) to coat both the stool itself and the lining of the intestines, so the one can slide more easily through the other. These can also come in the form of rectal suppositories.
  • Bulk-forming laxatives: This type of laxative adds fiber to bulk up your waste and absorb water, and includes the brands Metamucil, Benefiber, and Citrucel. They help your waste to swell up into soft, large stools that then prompt a bowel movement.
  • Stool softeners: Laxatives like Colace and Surfak are stool softeners, which also work to add water content to hard, dry stools to get them moving along more easily through your GI tract.

Now that you know what kind of laxatives are on the market, it’s time to answer the main questions: are they safe to use outside of their intended purposes, and do they even work for aiding weight loss?

Are laxatives safe for weight loss?

Laxatives for Weight Loss: Do They Work?

If you’re not taking laxatives for their intended purpose, there are potential side effects. While it’s quite common that people try to use laxatives to lose weight, misusing them for any extended amount of time can cause way more trouble than it’s worth. Moreover, using laxatives does not result in weight loss from fat loss, more like water weight loss at best. Read on to better understand how these laxatives work, and how they won’t work for real weight loss.

Laxatives Could Help with Loss of Water Weight

Shedding pounds quickly won’t work with laxatives, because as you might have noticed from the types of laxatives on the market, none of them target or use fat stores to help promote bowel movements. Many types of laxatives work by using and drawing water to bulk up your stool, which can lead to water weight loss instead. Loss of water weight is temporary, but the side effects from laxative abuse may not be.

Laxatives Are Ineffective at Controlling Body Weight

One study measuring the eating habits and daily food intake of 30 bulimia nervosa patients showed that laxative use was an ineffective way of controlling body weight. Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that involves binging large amounts of food and then either misusing laxatives or self-inducing vomiting to prevent weight gain. Both are extremely unhealthy ways of trying to manage weight.

Another study showed that laxative use was not only ineffective at controlling weight, but that laxative abuse was more prevalent in obese and overweight teenagers than those within a normal weight range. There are no studies that support evidence of laxative use leading to lasting weight loss. However, it’s estimated that 4% of the general populous has engaged in laxative abuse hoping to lose weight quickly, including 10.5% of women between the ages of 23 and 25.

Laxatives for Weight Loss: What Are the Potential Side Effects?

While it’s true that the numbers on the scale may go down due to loss of water weight because of laxative use, that is temporary weight loss, and could lead to side effects like electrolyte imbalance, dehydration, and possible laxative dependence.

1. Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolytes are substances in your body fluids that help aid in normal tissue and cell function. Common electrolytes include potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, chloride, and phosphate. The side effects of having your essential electrolytes off-balance can be serious, including confusion, seizures, and coma. Abuse of laxatives may lead to a deficiency in electrolytes, and repeated overuse of laxatives could create a long-term electrolyte imbalance.

One study showed that laxative use in 24 patients altered their sodium and potassium levels. Another much larger study of over 2,270 people who used laxatives in order to prepare for colonoscopies showed an increased risk of electrolyte disturbance as well. Symptoms of an electrolyte imbalance can include headache, thirst, heart palpitations, weakness, fatigue, and muscle aches. These are adverse events in the body that you’ll want to avoid by only using laxatives when needed and as recommended.

2. Dehydration

One of the most frequent side effects noticed from laxative use and misuse is dehydration. Because laxatives work to draw water into your intestines, colon, and stool from other tissues in the body, yes, your stools may move along, but some portion of your water is leaving with them. An electrolyte imbalance can arise from this, but without replacing the water lost there are other side effects that may occur, like dry skin, dizziness, thirst, headaches, fatigue, and reduced urine output (which could cause a backup of waste in your kidneys—for more on this and other drastic side effects, read further).

3. Possible Dependency

Laxatives are usually safe for short-term use, but some are worried that in cases of laxative abuse and long-term use, there could be a risk of dependency. This particular concern is mostly associated with stimulant laxatives, which work to induce bowel movements by speeding up intestinal contractions. While most reports of so-called laxative dependency are anecdotal, and there is little-to-no evidence that shows either dependencies or tolerance arising from too-frequent use of stimulant laxatives, long-term use of laxatives still needs more data to declare it is not a potential risk.

4. Other Possible Side Effects

There are other conditions and consequences that may result from laxative use and especially overuse. Here are a few more side effects to consider before using laxatives for weight loss instead of their intended purpose.

While more research is still needed to determine how detrimental long-term laxative abuse is, it’s nevertheless recommended that you never use medications other than as prescribed. The reason for this is that those recommendations are made within the bounds of safe results scientists and doctors have reached, and if you step outside those bounds, there is no guarantee your health won’t be dramatically affected.

There Are Better Ways to Lose Weight

While people use laxatives and other unhealthy weight-loss methods because they want a quick fix, the long-term consequences are not worth the risk. Not only are there healthier ways to lose weight, but these ways are also more effective in the long run. To lose weight and keep it off while staying healthy, look into these methods instead for shedding some extra pounds.

  • Reduce your food portions: Smaller portions result in fewer calories, and there are ways to visually increase satiety by eating from a smaller plate.
  • Decrease your intake of refined sugars: Refined sugars are those added to sweetened beverages like sodas, are found in processed candies and snack foods, and bring high calories and low nutrients.
  • Eat better foods: A higher intake of fruits and veggies correlates with a lower body weight (especially if you replace unhealthier snacks for them), and eating better foods means lower calories and higher nutrient content.
  • Increase physical activity: Exercising just a few times per week even at home can aid in weight loss and prevent regaining it.
  • Eat a strong breakfast: Starting your day with protein or other filling foods has been shown to reduce food intake all day and curb appetite.

Rather than adding a damaging habit to your weight-loss efforts, we suggest these tried and true changes instead. Not only do they not cause you harm, but they can also help you reach and keep your goal of losing weight much more reliably.

Don’t Be Lax with Your Health

The science is clear that laxatives simply do not cause real (i.e., body fat) weight loss, and there is some evidence pointing to the existence of serious side effects due to laxative misuse or abuse. If you have constipation and now feel uncomfortable with using laxatives, ask a trusted health care professional for advice, or look into some of our natural remedies for constipation.

If you’re looking to lose weight fast, try a diet like the ketogenic diet, which retrains your body to use fat without starving it or yourself. Modifying your diet, being active, and staying healthy: these are the best ways to lose weight and feel great! We encourage you not to short-change yourself with a shortcut, because you deserve better.

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