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.
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.
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.
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.
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.