How to Stop Abusing Laxatives

Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
September/October 1999 Volume 10, Number 5
©1999 Gürze Books

People who abuse laxatives often find themselves in a no-win situation. They use laxatives to “feel thin,” which is an immediate, positive result. Eventually, however, the exact opposite occurs. They find themselves “feeling fat” from excessive water retention—a delayed, negative result. Here are some steps to stop abusing laxatives:

  1. Stop taking laxatives right now, and do not take any more unless your physician instructs you to do so. Remember that stimulant-type laxatives are especially harmful to the body (see the reverse side).
  2. Drink at least 6 to 10 cups of water (and decaffeinated beverages—not caffeinated beverages because they act like a diuretic, promoting loss of fluid) a day. Restricting your fluid intake at this time promotes dehydration and only worsens the constipation.
  3. Including some physical activity in your regular daily pattern can also help to regulate your bowel function, although you should discuss the intensity and type of activity first with your health care provider or therapist. Too much or too vigorous exercise can worsen constipation, due to the effects on your metabolism and fluid balance.
  4. Eat regularly. It is important that you spread the amount of food recommended to you on your meal plan across at least 3 meals a day, and to eat these meals at regular intervals.
  5. Eat more foods that promote normal bowel movements. The healthiest dietary approach to promoting normal bowel function is to eat more whole-grain breads, cereals, and crackers and wheat bran or foods with wheat bran added. This dietary approach should be done in tandem with drinking more fluids. Vegetables and fruits also contribute to normal bowel function. Prunes and prune juice are not recommended because the ingredient in prunes that promotes bowel movements is actually an irritant laxative, and long-term use of prunes and prune juice can result in the same problem as long-term use of laxatives.
  6. Write down the frequency of your bowel movements on a sheet of paper. If you are constipated for more than 3 days, call your physician, dietitian, or psychotherapist.

What to Expect from Laxative Withdrawal

There is no way to predict exactly how stopping laxatives will affect you. For example, the amount or length of time laxatives have been used is not an indicator of how severe the withdrawal symptoms will be. The best way to lessen the unpleasant effects of laxative withdrawal is to prepare yourself for these effects and to develop an action plan for coping in case the unpleasant side effects do occur.

Common side effects of laxative withdrawal are:

  • constipation
  • fluid retention
  • feeling bloated
  • temporary weight gain

Just reading this list, you can see that laxative withdrawal is especially difficult for people with eating disorders. You already are highly reactive to “feeling fat” and the symptoms of laxative withdrawal only worsen this feeling. To help you get through the process of laxative withdrawal, it is essential to remember that any weight gain associated with laxative withdrawal is only temporary. Symptoms of laxative withdrawal do not lead to permanent weight gain.

How long will laxative withdrawal last? This varies greatly. A few people have these symptoms for 2 days; a few others have had them for 2 to 3 months. Most people have symptoms of laxative abuse for 1 to 3 weeks after stopping laxatives.

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