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Laxatives for weight loss: Is it safe?

We're rounding up all the facts and myths about laxative use and weight loss.

Laxatives for weight loss: Is it safe?
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The idea that laxatives aid weight loss has long been told to us, from "skinny" teas that make you sit on the toilet for hours to laxative gums and beyond.

So, do laxatives make you lose weight? While laxatives might lower the number you see on the scale, they're not a sustainable, healthy or long-term way to help you lose weight. Instead, they can be a harmful "quick fix" tool that can come with some serious health complications.

We're rounding up all the facts and myths about laxative use and weight loss, why people think laxatives work for weight loss and what to do instead of turning to a bottle of laxatives.

What are laxatives?

Laxatives are a type of medication that is used to treat constipation in the short term or conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (which can cause chronic constipation). Laxatives stimulate bowel movements in combination with other lifestyle changes like adding more fibre to your diet, drinking plenty of water, and exercising regularly [1].

Laxatives come in different forms, including pills, capsules, liquids, gums, and more. There are a few different types of laxatives that work a little differently to relieve constipation and improve your bowel movements [2]:

  • Bulk-forming laxatives: Bulk-forming laxatives are bulking agents that increase the bulk (weight of the stool) and water content which makes it easier to move through the intestinal tract.
  • Stimulant laxatives: Stimulant laxatives work by stimulating the intestinal wall muscles which makes it easier for stool to move along.
  • Osmotic laxatives: Osmotic laxatives work by drawing water from the rest of your body to soften the stool so it passes through your bowels easier.
  • Stool-softener laxatives: These laxatives draw water into the stool, acting as stool softeners so it's easier to pass through.
  • Lubricant laxatives: Lubricant laxatives like mineral oil make stool slippery which helps to treat constipation by lubricating the intestinal wall [3].

As you can tell, the key role of laxatives is to support regularity and get things moving through your digestive tract. They're designed for short-term use and are primarily responsible for making the next trip to the bathroom a lot easier.

How do laxatives cause weight loss?

So, where does the link between laxatives and weight loss come from?

You've probably seen plenty of teas, pills and potions claiming to support rapid weight loss. Some of these products contain laxatives, which can do more harm than good in the long term.

Some people believe taking laxatives will help them lose weight. But, that's actually not the case. Although you may see a drop in weight loss when you step on the scale you're actually losing water weight instead of losing body fat.

Weight loss when taking laxatives is basically temporary weight loss that won't last forever and it won't help you lose any body fat. Since laxatives are stool softeners they help the gut absorb water so it's easier for stool to pass through [4]. That means weight loss from laxatives simply means you're getting rid of water weight.

Plus, laxatives don't actually lower calorie absorption they only affect water absorption. Research shows that even among eating disorder patients who use laxatives for weight loss and at high doses, only modest effects on calorie absorption were found [5].

Are laxatives safe for weight loss?

Laxatives for weight loss aren't recommended and can come with some nasty side effects. Doctors do not recommend taking laxatives to help with weight loss. Instead, laxatives should only be used as a short-term solution to stimulate bowel movement and relieve constipation, not as a weight control method.

Plus, long-term use of laxatives for weight loss can lead to laxative abuse based on the false belief that they will help with weight loss.

In a lot of cases, overusing laxatives can happen after binge eating because people believe laxatives stimulate bowel movements before any food and calories can even be absorbed [6].

In reality, food and calorie absorption would have already been absorbed by the small intestine before the laxative has even acted on the large intestine [6]. Chronic laxative abuse will cause a loss of water, minerals, and electrolytes and this water weight will come back once you drink any fluids.

So, not only do laxatives fail to get to the root cause of weight gain, but they can dehydrate the body and drain our system of vital minerals and nutrients.

Are there any side effects of using laxatives for weight loss?

Laxative use for weight loss can eventually lead to laxative abuse which can come with some pretty risky side effects. Purging behaviours including misusing laxatives are a feature of bulimia nervosa which is a serious eating disorder and mental health condition.

Using laxatives for weight loss over time can lead to various health complications including:

Electrolyte imbalances

Taking laxatives for weight loss can cause an electrolyte imbalance and impact the body's absorption of nutrients. Common electrolytes include potassium, magnesium, sodium, calcium, and chloride [7].

These essential electrolytes help to regulate various bodily functions. An electrolyte imbalance can cause weakness, seizures, confusion, abnormal heart rhythms and even heart palpitations in extreme cases.

Chronic constipation

A laxative dependency can cause chronic constipation because the body builds a tolerance and dependency on the laxatives. Since the body is used to the laxatives it loses its natural ability to pass bowel movements.

Dehydration

Since laxatives work by drawing water from different parts of your body this can cause dehydration thirst, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and dry skin.

Impaired intestinal function

The intestines can lose their nerve responses and muscle functioning, which makes it harder to pass stool. This causes waste to sit in the intestines for longer periods of time [8].

Kidney failure

Studies have shown that eating disorder patients who have a history of overusing laxatives have presented with kidney failure [9].

Liver damage

Laxative abuse can cause liver damage which can cause abdominal pain, dark-coloured urine and pale-coloured stool [10].

What are some healthier ways I can lose weight?

Sadly, there's no way to lose weight fast in a sustainable way. While laxative use can help you drop a few pounds it's mainly water weight loss.

If you want to lose weight and lose fat without developing an eating disorder from laxative abuse, healthy and sustainable weight loss is the key.

Here are the best ways to lose weight that focus on long-term weight loss and weight management.

Eating a balanced diet

One of the best things you can do for your overall health is to eat a balanced diet. This includes managing your food intake by eating all 5 food groups, focusing on whole foods, avoiding processed foods like sugary drinks and consuming fewer calories than you're burning.

To lower body weight, eating the 5 food groups includes:

  • Lean proteins: poultry, fish, meat, eggs, legumes, tofu and seeds
  • Vegetables and beans
  • Fruits
  • Grains and cereals
  • Dairy: milk, yogurt and cheese [11].

Eating lean proteins, whole grains and vegetables (which are high in fibre) also keep you fuller for longer which reduces snacking and reduces how hungry you feel throughout the day.

Eating lots of fibre isn't just great for losing weight but great for your bowel movement too and helps to relieve constipation.

Exercising regularly

Physical activity is important when you're trying to lose weight and it also helps with a range of health issues.

Make sure you exercise regularly by finding exercises you actually enjoy doing, whether that's taking a Pilates class, going for a daily walk, hitting the gym or going for a swim.

Holistic weight loss and management programs

Juniper's Weight Reset Program is a holistic weight loss and weight management program, designed for long-term weight loss. The Weight Reset Program combines breakthrough medication that helps to regulate digestion, decrease appetite and helps to change your relationship with food so you can lose weight and keep it off.

Health coaching is provided to help you make lifestyle changes like eating a balanced diet and making sure you exercise regularly and stick to a routine. Plus, we also introduce you to a support system of other women on the journey with you so you feel less alone.

One-on-one health tracking is used to give you a personalised experience through weekly check-ins with your Aussie doctor to track your biometric, mental and physical health. We also make adjustments to suit your individual needs.

Ultimately, weight loss can be really difficult. We know it can be tempting to try anything to lose weight and avoid weight gain. But, turning to laxatives does far more harm to your health than good. The best way to lose weight is to follow a holistic program, eat a balanced diet and increase your physical activity for sustainable and long-term results.

Image credit: Getty Images

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