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How to prevent a laxative overdose

When used appropriately, laxatives can be a helpful tool to alleviate constipation. But excessive laxative use can be harmful and is also sometimes a sign of an eating disorder. (1)

In severe cases, laxative misuse can cause serious health consequences and lead to an overdose. But knowing how to recognize the signs of a laxative overdose can help prevent these troubling issues. 

7
 minute read
Last updated on 
July 19, 2023
January 18, 2024
Prevent a laxative overdose
In this article

What are laxatives?

Laxatives are a specific class of medicine that are used to help induce bowel movements. They're normally used to relieve constipation and can be helpful if natural methods—such as eating enough fiber, drinking enough water, and engaging in healthy levels of physical activity—fall short.

Many people who struggle with eating disorders abuse laxatives, thinking that the medicine will help them lose weight or avoid gaining weight by pushing food through the digestive system before calories are absorbed, but that's not the way laxatives work.

If you or someone you know is abusing laxatives to lose weight, it's important to get help before serious medical issues occur.

Call us today

There are several types of laxatives that help control bowel movements in different ways, including:10

  • Bulk-forming laxatives: Work by "bulking up" stool with a substance called soluble fiber.
  • Osmotic laxatives: Work by drawing water from different parts of the body into the colon, to make stool softer.
  • Stool softener laxatives: Work by increasing the water and fat absorbed by stool, making it easier to pass.
  • Lubricant laxatives: Work by coating the colon and making it more "slick."
  • Stimulant laxatives: Work by activating the nerves that control the muscles in the colon.

The food waste that's present in the colon by the time it's impacted by a laxative has already been through the digestive system, meaning most calories associated with that food have been absorbed. The laxative simply works to help remove that waste, along with water, indigestible fiber, and valuable minerals and electrolytes.1,2

What are the health consequences of abusing laxatives?

Abusing laxatives can have very serious health consequences.2

The most serious side effects are dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. These, in turn, can result in many damaging health complications.

Specifically, laxatives can have an effect on the levels of important electrolytes including potassium, calcium, sodium, and magnesium. Each of these play a crucial role in any number of internal functions, and an imbalance of these electrolytes can have serious consequences.

Potassium deficiencies

Potassium plays a crucial role in many functions of the body. Some signs of a potassium deficiency include:3,4

  • Constipation
  • Heart palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle damage
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tingling or numbness
  • Abnormal heart rhythms
  • Muscle twitching
  • Muscle cramping
  • Faintness
  • Excessive urination
  • Thirst

Calcium deficiencies

Calcium is another important nutrient in the body, and signs of a deficiency can include:5

  • Painful muscle spasms in the throat and muscles (tetany) and cramps in the back and legs
  • Twitching of muscles
  • Numbness or tingling in feet and hands
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss, delirium
  • Hallucinations
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Seizures (very rare)
  • Tiredness
  • Changes in the toes and nails such as brittleness

Sodium deficiencies

Too much sodium is a problem for many people, but not enough of this mineral can also cause a number of issues, including:8

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Loss of energy
  • Drowsiness
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Muscle weakness, spasms or cramps
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Magnesium deficiencies

Magnesium is one of the most multi-faceted minerals in the body. Without enough of this electrolyte, some issues that may arise include:9

  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Shaking
  • Feeling of pins and needles
  • Muscle spasms
  • Hyperexcitability
  • Sleepiness
  • Abnormal heart rhythms

How laxative abuse can lead to a laxative overdose

When laxative misuse becomes chronic, the body can develop a tolerance or dependency on these outside influences. People may start taking more laxatives to produce the same effects, and this cycle can eventually lead to a laxative overdose.

Yet, repeated laxative use can also lead to the loss of muscle and nerve response in the intestines. This can lead to dilation, making it difficult to move stool. As a result, even more laxatives are needed to expel waste, and this can bring someone to the point of a laxative overdose.

In fact, chronic laxative abuse is sometimes considered a type of drug addiction, as it includes other aspects of that issue, such as psychological dependence and physical withdrawal symptoms.6

What are the signs of an overdose of laxatives?

Laxatives are meant to produce bowel movements. But too much of this medicine can have the opposite effect, causing discomfort and, in extreme scenarios, serious medical complications.

Many laxative overdose symptoms, including abdominal pain, bloody stools, and severe gas, can be extremely uncomfortable.

Some of the other most common symptoms include:7

In products that alter magnesium levels, overdose symptoms can be particularly severe, including impaired kidney function and coma.11

What to do when a laxative overdose occurs

An overdose of laxatives can lead to severe symptoms, and sometimes even fatal consequences. When an overdose of laxatives occurs you should call 911 or one of your local poison control centers right away.

It's important to not induce vomiting in the case of a laxative overdose, as the person is most likely already severely dehydrated. Instead, wait for professionals to arrive and help the situation. Though, you should try to determine when and how much of the laxative was taken.

Do not induce vomiting if a laxative overdose has occurred.

Once someone has received emergency medicine to help with immediate health threats, it's important to think of the longer-term consequences of laxative abuse. This type of behavior is often indicative of an eating disorder, but even in cases when it's not, it's important to find the right kind of help to address the issue and any underlying causes, both from a physical and psychological standpoint.

How to prevent a laxative overdose

The best way to prevent a laxative overdose is to not exceed the recommended or prescribed dose. Of course, this may be easier said than done, especially if someone is struggling with other issues, such as an eating disorder or another mental health condition, that may cause them to become dependent on laxatives.

Still, there are some tips that can help keep your digestive system functioning properly while helping alleviate constipation, including:

  • Drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated
  • Avoiding caffeine, as it can cause dehydration
  • Tracking bowel movements to see when constipation occurs
  • Incorporating more movement in your day to stimulate bowel function
  • Including high-fiber foods into your meals

What to do when an eating disorder is involved in laxative abuse

While there are many reasons someone may overdose on laxatives, one of the most common reasons is because they have an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa (AN) or bulimia nervosa (BN). 

Eating disorders are very serious, complex mental health disorders that require highly specialized treatment beyond treating a laxative overdose. They do not go away on their own. So it’s important to get help as soon as possible.

Speaking with a primary care doctor, therapist, or another trusted medical professional is a great way to start. These professionals can help you or your loved one secure an official diagnosis or determine your next best steps.

A number of eating disorder hotlines can also help provide additional information and resources. These generally offer a free and confidential service for callers.

Remote treatment may be the answer

At Within Health, we also hope to help. Our team of multidisciplinary professionals can address many different aspects of many different eating disorders, and our unique online program can help you get the help you need from home.

Wherever you decide to look, reaching out for help can be difficult, but it's often the first step toward a full recovery.

Call for a free consultation

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Roerig, J. L., Steffen, K. J., Mitchell, J. E., & Zunker, C. (2010). Laxative abuse: epidemiology, diagnosis and management. Drugs, 70(12), 1487–1503. 
  2. Laxative abuse. (2018, February 22). National Eating Disorders Association. Retrieved October 27, 2022.
  3. Low blood potassium: Medlineplus medical encyclopedia. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved October 27, 2022.
  4. Low potassium level causes (hypokalemia). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved October 27, 2022.
  5. Low calcium levels. (2022, January 28). Cancer Research UK. Retrieved October 27, 2022.
  6. Shirasawa, Y., Fukuda, M., Kimura, G. (2014, November). Diuretics-assisted treatment of chronic laxative abuse. CEN Case Reports, 3(2), 209-214. 
  7. Laxative overdose: Medlineplus medical encyclopedia. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved October 27, 2022.
  8. Hyponatremia. (2022, May 17). Mayo Clinic. Accessed July 2023.
  9. Magnesium deficiency. HealthDirect. Accessed July 2023. 
  10. Laxatives. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed July 2023. 
  11. Laxative overdose. Mount Saini. Accessed July 2023. 
  12. Jaslow, R. (2014, January 9). FDA warns exceeding laxative dose may be deadly for some. CBS News. Accessed July 2023.

FAQs

Can you overdose on laxatives?

Yes, it's possible to overdose on laxatives.

In 2014, it was reported that more than one daily recommended dose of certain laxatives could lead to overdose or other complications, with at least 14 confirmed deaths of laxative overdose-related issues that year.12

Laxative misuse can also lead to laxative overdose. And while this is a relatively rare occurrence overall, it still represents a medical emergency, and help should be sought immediately if symptoms occur.

How long does a laxative overdose last?

It's hard to say how long a laxative overdose will last. The specifics depend on how many laxatives were taken, physiological details, such as age and weight, and how long the person has been misusing laxatives, among other factors.

But it is possible to recover from laxative overdose, especially if help is sought quickly. If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of laxative overdose, you should contact 911 or your local poison control center immediately.

How to reverse a laxative overdose?

It may not be possible to reverse a laxative overdose once symptoms occur, but it is possible to recover from laxative abuse or misuse. If you or a loved one are experiencing the signs of a laxative overdose, you should call for emergency help immediately. Once your immediate needs are met, you can seek out help to work on the underlying causes of laxative abuse and reverse the impact laxative misuse can have on your body.

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Further reading

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