While laxatives can achieve some amount of weight loss, the overall loss is usually limited. It is also important for you to know that most of the weight lost during the use of laxatives is water weight. The important question is whether laxatives are really safe for losing weight? Could this be the downfall of young people who are desperate to lose weight to fit in with their skinny peers?
According to statistics, the largest groups of people who use laxatives are people who have anorexia or bulimia nervosa. These groups of people are more likely to use laxatives to achieve their weight loss.
What Are Laxatives?
Laxatives are any food, chemical compounds, or drugs taken to cause a bowel movement or to make stools loose. The use of laxatives is prescribed for some medical procedures (before surgeries or colon examination) in patients who are finding it difficult to pass stool. The method of operation is to clear the large intestine very rapidly. However, for people who want to lose weight fast, the use of laxatives falls under ‘extreme weight control strategies’ along with other methods such as fasting, vomiting, diet pills, cigarettes, and diuretics.
Types of Laxatives:
- Oral Osmotics: These laxatives serve to draw water from the surrounding tissues into the large intestine to allow stool to pass easily. Examples are Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia and Miralax. They are not recommended for people with high blood pressure, kidney disease, heart problems, or those who are on a salt-restricted diet.
- Oral Bulk Formers: These laxatives absorb water to make the stool softer and cause normal contraction of intestinal muscles. Examples are Benefiber, Citrucel, Fiber Choice, and Metamucil.
- Oral Stool Softeners: These laxatives add moisture to the stool to prevent strain during bowel movements. Examples are Colace and Kaopectate.
- Oral Stimulants: These laxatives cause a rhythmic contraction of the intestines to remove stool. Examples are Ex-lax and Senokot.
- Rectal Stimulants: These laxatives also cause rhythmic contraction of the intestines to remove stool. Examples are Bisacodyl, Pedia-lax, and Dulcolax.
- Saline Laxatives: These laxatives are generally used before surgeries or bowel examinations to help patients get rid of food or drug poison. They fill the intestines with a lot of water. Examples are Milk of Magnesia, Epsom Salt, and Fleet-Phospho Soda.
- Lactose: This is used to relieve chronic constipation. Operates slower than other laxatives, usually within one to two days. Examples are Emulose and Cholac.
Some Herbal Supplements Containing Laxatives:
- American Health TAM® Herbal Laxative Tablets: These pills contain cascara sagrada and senna, which are well-known laxative ingredients.
- Applied Nutrition Coconut & Aloe Natural Laxative: The plant, Aloe, is from a family of plants that contain natural laxative tendencies.
- Now Foods Laxative Cleanse: This supplement contains senna, cascara sagrada, and rhubarb root, which are well-known laxative ingredients.
- Phillips Laxative Dietary Supplement Caplets: The active ingredient is magnesium. This product is stimulant free, but is a laxative.
- Radiance Herbal Ease Laxative Tablets: Again, this product contains senna and cascara sagrada.
- Senoxol Laxative: The active ingredient is senna.
- SenoSol-X Laxative: The active ingredients are senna and docusate sodium.
- Laxatives in Natural Substances: Some herbal teas actually contain laxatives. Examples of laxative ingredients found in some teas include senna, aloe, buckthorn, rhubarb root, cascara, and castor oil.
Note that there are many more herbal supplements containing laxatives on the market, but the ones listed here were found on the Dietary Supplements Label Database in the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM). To know if a herbal supplement contains a laxative, check the list of ingredients on the pack.
What about the Dangers of Short-Term Use?
As much as using herbal supplements for only a short-term period sounds like a favorable option (more like a quickie), there are still some dangerous side effects ranging from mild to severe. The following lists some of the dangers even for short-term use of herbal supplements containing laxatives:
- Prolonged diarrhoea
- Severe stomach cramping or abdominal pain
- Dizziness, fainting, and/or excessive fatigue
- Rectal bleeding or bloody stools
- Muscular weakness
- Bone pain
- Electrolyte deficiency (severe reaction from excess amounts): hypokalaemia (lower-than-normal amount of potassium in the blood) and metabolic alkalosis (decreased hydrogen ion/increased bicarbonate concentrations).
- Death (severe reaction from excess amounts)
The More Long-Term Side Effects of Using Laxatives
Medical research shows that there can be some dire long-term consequences for consuming excessive amounts of laxatives. Long-term consumption of excess laxatives in the human system leads to:
- Pancreatitis: Chronic abuse of laxatives changes the gastrointestinal function and can lead to pancreatitis.
- Melanosis coli: Laxative abuse can cause a disorder of the pigmentation of the colon.
- Radiological appearances of the colon: Laxative abuse can cause radiological appearances of the colon.
- Loss of colon function: Overuse of laxatives can cause the colon to be overstimulated and can reduce its ability to expel feces.
- Skin fragmentation: skin aging is caused by the fragmentation of the collagen fibrils that make up the layers of the skin. This is a side effect of laxative abuse.
- Steatorrhoea: An overuse of laxatives can result in the presence of excess fat in the feces. Source: Laxative Induced Diarrhoea: A Continuing Clinical Problem
Side-Effects of Herbal Supplements Containing Laxatives
Herbal supplements containing laxatives possess chemical compounds called anthranoids. Anthranoids are known to stimulate the movement of the intestines while producing a faster transit time for bowel movements. Anthranoid-containing herbal supplements can lead to Melanosis Coli (disorder of the pigmentation of the colon), as well as a possible increased risk for colorectal cancer.
Healthy Alternatives for Losing Weight
There are a number of ways to lead a healthy lifestyle that can help weight loss, here are a few suggestions:
Eat healthy and avoid junk food: Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and avoid foods with high fat content such as junk food. Most fast food restaurants are concerned with their sales than the health of their customers. These restaurants tend to use cheaper or subsidized food products (for instance rice, wheat, corn, and soybeans) which contain higher calories (and/or higher fat content) than the healthier options with lower calories. You can avoid the junk by making delicious home-made meals with healthier ingredient options.
Eat smaller-sized portions of meals: Portion size is an important factor when it comes to maintaining a BMI within the healthy range. Most people don’t keep track of their portion sizes, however, the recommended amounts per meal can be found under the “serving size” information on grocery packets or restaurant menus.
Eat foods that have a natural laxative effect: it is better to consume foods with a natural laxative effect than to take an artificial herbal supplement. Examples of natural laxatives are banana, kiwi-fruit, prunes, aloe vera, blackstrap molasses, pears, and nuts.
Exercise regularly: If you combine exercise with healthy eating, you are bound to lose weight in the healthiest natural way. Most recommendations are for exercising thirty minutes a day, or every other day, or three times a week.
Drink plenty of water and avoid carbonated soft drinks: According to statistics, carbonated soft drinks are the number one source of daily added sugar in-take in the United States and in most parts of the world. Avoiding soft drinks will help you lose weight.
Add calcium to your diet: Diets with high calcium content are associated with reduced occurrences of being over-weight or obese. Daily vitamin A with Calcium is also suggested in literature for weight loss.
Go on a macrobiotic diet: This diet consists of dairy, fish, and other supplements based on the individual’s needs. It is a diet that stresses vegetarianism and whole healthy foods consumption. Nutrition deficiencies can occur with this diet, but not with proper menu planning.5
Spirulina Therapy: This is a very popular therapy that involves eating a type of blue-green algae, spirulina. It is marketed as a “vitamin-enriched” appetite suppressant. More research is needed to show connection to weight loss. Avoid if allergic to blue-green algae, are pregnant or breast-feeding, or have phenylketonuria (PKU).
- Over-the-Counter Laxatives for Constipation: Use with Caution. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research [Internet]. 2011 Apr 23. Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/laxatives/HQ00088
- Simon H, Zieve D. Weight Control and Diet – Medications. University of Maryland Medical Center [Internet]. 2011.
- Cummings J.H, Sladen G.E, James O.F.W, Sarner M, Misiewicz J.J. Laxative Induced Diarrhoea: A Continuing Clinical Problem. British Medical Journal [Internet]. 1974 March 23; 1:537-41. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1633677/pdf/brmedj02180-0021.pdf
- Bolen B.B, PhD. Herbal Stimulant Laxatives: Safety and Side Effect Information. About.com Guide [Internet]. 2012 Aug 21. Available from: http://ibs.about.com/od/treatmentofibs/a/herballaxatives.htm
- Living Naturally and Port City Organics [Internet]. Available from: http://www.portcityorganics.com/promog/ConditionCenter.asp?ConditionID=26&StoreID=C11D31F6818A42AEADCB69E6D517115D