Do you strain every time you have to move your bowels? Then you may be suffering from constipation, a condition hallmarked by hard stools and movements less than 3 times a week. While this may be treated with a healthy diet, adequate hydration, and exercise, you may be prescribed laxatives.
Laxatives help relieve constipation by increasing the bulk and motility of your stools – thus improving its frequency. And although it is helpful at first, long-term use – such as in those who are addicted to it (laxative abuse) – can lead to dire repercussions.
Table of Contents
- Types of Laxatives
- Can You Get Addicted to Laxatives?
- Why Some People Are Addicted to Laxatives
- What Happens When You Abuse Laxatives
- Laxative Abuse and Bulimia Nervosa
- Treatment Options
- Cautionary Tips When Taking Laxatives
Types of Laxatives
Laxatives come in liquids, pills, suppositories, and enemas.
1. Bulking Agents
The most commonly prescribed laxatives are bulking agents made with fiber, which is often given to people with normal or slow-transit psyllium. Popular examples include psyllium, wheat dextrin, methylcellulose fiber, and calcium polycarbophil.
Fiber helps increase the stool’s bulk and water content, thus making it easier to move. When taking this supplement, however, copious amounts of water should be consumed to prevent flatulence and obstruction. It should also be taken an hour before or 2 hours after meals.
These laxatives make stools slippery, thus making it the best choice for short-term constipation.
Lubricants contain mineral oil that coats the intestines, thus keeping the stools from drying out.
Mineral oil has the tendency to absorb some vitamins, which is why it shouldn’t be taken alongside most supplements.
Also known as stool softeners, these laxatives contain docusate, a substance that wets and softens stools. Although its effects only manifest after a week of use, it is usually prescribed to people who underwent surgery, have hemorrhoids, or have just given birth.
4. Osmotic and Hyperosmolar Laxatives
Laxatives such as lucatose, phospho-soda, magnesium hydroxide, and polyethylene glycol work by drawing more fluids into the intestines, thus making stools easier to pass. Because of its mechanism of action, high fluid intake is needed for them to be effective.
5. Prescription Laxatives
Medications such as Plecanatide, Linaclotide, and Lubiprostone attract water into the gut to ease bowel movements. Such laxatives are prescribed to those with irritable bowel syndrome and chronic idiopathic constipation. It is generally avoided in kids aged 6 and below.
Stimulants work on the gut lining, thus promoting easier bowel movements. Common examples include Bisacodyl and Sennosides. Of all laxatives, stimulants have the highest tendency to cause dependency or addiction when taken daily.
Can You Get Addicted to Laxatives?
Yes. This is categorized as an eating disorder called laxative abuse. This is characterized by the repeated intake of laxatives to lose weight and remove unwanted calories.
Why Some People Are Addicted to Laxatives
Most laxative abusers take so after binge eating, usually because they believe that it can remove the calories before the body absorbs them. Unfortunately, by the time the laxatives take action on the large intestines, the small intestines have already been absorbed in the small intestines.
Contrary to popular beliefs, laxative abuse rarely produces food byproducts. More often than not, it just releases water, electrolytes, minerals, and indigestible fiber from the colon. This water weight quickly returns right after the person re-hydrates her/himself.
What Happens When You Abuse Laxatives
Just like taking drugs, daily laxative use produces dependency. As the colon stops reacting to normal doses, the person may find her/himself using more to produce bowel movements.
Laxative-caused stools contain a lot of water, which could essentially lead to dehydration. And, should the individual refuse to drink fluids, he/she could develop severe symptoms such as weakness, tremors, blurry vision, kidney damage, fainting, and death.
3. Colon Problems
Frequent laxative use ‘stretches’ the colon, which could lead to irritable bowel syndrome and colon infection. In worst cases, abuse may lead to colon cancer as well.
4. Compromised Organ Function
As mentioned, laxative use leads to electrolyte loss. As such, nerves, muscles, and the heart may work improperly due to the loss of potassium, sodium, magnesium, and phosphorous.
Should you decide to stop your laxative use abruptly, you will find yourself suffering from withdrawal symptoms. The length of the manifestations can range from 2 days, although some experience it for 1 to 6 months after use.
Withdrawal symptoms include constipation, bloating, temporary weight gain, and fluid retention.
Laxative Abuse and Bulimia Nervosa
Laxative abuse is bad enough by itself. However, its effects are further magnified when it occurs with another condition.
In bulimics, laxative abuse could lead to gut damage. Weakening/softening of the bones, kidney problems, and bowel tumors may occur as well. Both disorders can also lead to a compromised immune system, rendering the individual at risk of infection.
As for anorexics, laxative abuse can lead to bone loss, which if unmanaged can advance to fractures and osteoporosis. Dehydration may happen as well, which could trigger kidney damage in the future.
Because of the psychological underpinnings related to laxative abuse, a multi-disciplinary approach is warranted. Treatment may include the help of eating disorder experts, which include a physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, and dietitian. Apart from these individuals, support from family and friends will come in useful throughout the recovery process as well.
Cautionary Tips When Taking Laxatives
- Take fiber-rich foods first before using laxatives. Good examples include wheat or whole-grain food sources, fruits, and vegetables.
- Drink a lot of fluids, specifically 6-10 cups of caffeine-free liquids.
- Do some physical activity, such as walking in the morning. Avoid going overboard with this as it can worsen constipation even more.
- Take note of the frequency of your bowel movements.
- Avoid taking stimulant laxatives regularly.
- See your doctor if laxatives don’t do the trick. Your constipation may be a sign of hypothyroidism, colon cancer, or diabetes.
Laxatives can be addictive, especially in people who feel that they can help them lose weight. Unfortunately, this could only lead to dependence – and health consequences such as dehydration, compromised organ function, and colon disorders.