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Laxatives for Weight Loss: Are They Safe and Effective?
Published on November 11, 2020 and last updated for accuracy on November 15, 2020
Laxatives are a type of medication that people use to relieve constipation. Sometimes, people without constipation take laxatives in the belief that these drugs will help them lose weight.
In this article, we look at whether laxatives aid weight loss. We also discuss the safety of using laxatives for weight loss, alternative weight loss strategies, and when to see a doctor.
What Are Laxatives?
Laxatives are medications people use to help stimulate bowel movements or loosen up stool to ease its passage.
They are often used to treat constipation, a condition caused by infrequent, painful or difficult bowel movements.
They have also become a popular method for weight loss. Many people believe that using laxatives can help increase the frequency of bowel movements and allow for quick, easy and effortless weight loss.
Types of Laxatives
Few different classes of laxatives that work in different ways. The main types are (1):
- Stimulants (Dulcolax, Senokot): This class of laxatives triggers contractions of intestinal wall muscles in order to move stool along the GI tract, resulting in elimination. These are available in oral forms and as a rectal suppository.
- Osmotics (Milk of Magnesia, Miralax): They work by drawing water from nearby body tissue into the colon in order to soften the stool and spur bowel action.
- Bulking agents (Metamucil, Benefiber, Citrucel): These fiber supplements absorb liquid in the intestines and swell up to form a large, soft, bulky stool, the presence of which prompts a normal bowel movement.
- Lubricants (Fleet): These use oil, like mineral oil, to coat both the bowel and the stool, keeping the stool moist and soft and helping it pass through the GI tract more easily. These also come in rectal suppository form.
- Stool softeners (Colace, Surfak): These help reduce straining by helping moisture mix into dry, hard stools.
Are Laxatives Effective and Safe for Weight Loss?
Doctors do not recommend laxatives as a way to lose weight. Research suggests that while some people mistakenly believe that taking laxatives will prevent their body from absorbing calories, it is an unsafe and ineffective strategy.
Laxatives treat constipation by softening the stool or stimulating bowel movements. People may assume that passing more stools will lead to weight loss.
However, although people may feel “lighter” temporarily, there is no evidence to support the use of laxatives as a safe or effective weight loss method.
Laxatives Cause Water Loss, Not Weight Loss
Laxative use has become incredibly common among those looking to shed a few pounds quickly. In fact, some studies estimate that more than 4% of the general population engages in laxative abuse (2).
It is true that laxatives may help increase weight loss, but the results are only temporary.
Several types of laxatives work by pulling water from your body into the intestines, allowing stool to absorb more water for an easier passage. With this method, the only weight you’ll lose is from the water you excrete through stool (1).
One small study measured the daily food intake and eating habits of 30 patients with bulimia nervosa, a type of eating disorder that involves eating large amounts of food and then using methods such as self-induced vomiting or laxatives to prevent weight gain.
Compared to other methods used by these patients, researchers found that laxative use was an ineffective method for controlling body weight (3).
Another study also concluded that laxatives were not effective at controlling weight, noting that laxative use was more prevalent among overweight and obese teenagers than those of a normal weight (4).
To date, there have been no studies supporting the idea that laxative use can lead to lasting weight loss.
Instead, it can lead to dangerous side effects like dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and possibly even dependence.
Safety and Risks
Many laxatives are available over the counter for the treatment of constipation. Misusing laxatives for weight loss may cause the following side effects:
One of the most common side effects of laxative use is dehydration.
This is because many laxatives work by drawing water into the intestines from other tissues, resulting in a loss of water through the stool (1).
If you’re not careful to replenish the water that is lost, it can lead to dehydration.
Common symptoms of dehydration include headaches, reduced urine output, increased thirst, fatigue, dry skin and dizziness.
Electrolytes are substances dissolved in your bodily fluids that are important for helping your cells and tissues function normally (5).
Some common electrolytes include chloride, sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and phosphate.
If the balance of these essential electrolytes is thrown off, it can cause dangerous side effects including seizures, confusion and coma.
One small study of 24 patients showed that laxative use resulted in significant alterations in participants’ levels of sodium and potassium (8).
Another study in 2,270 people showed that the laxatives commonly used to prepare for colonoscopies increased the risk of electrolyte disturbances (9).
Common symptoms of electrolyte imbalance can include thirst, headaches, heart palpitations, fatigue, weakness and muscle aches.
People usually use laxatives to relieve constipation. If a person takes laxatives when they are not constipated or uses them too frequently, these drugs may cause diarrhea.
Some people who often use laxatives may experience alternating diarrhea and constipation.
Impaired Intestinal Function
Some laxatives can stimulate muscles in the gut, helping them promote the movement of stool through it. Taking any stimulant laxatives too frequently may cause dependency.
More research is necessary on this effect, but some experts believe that the gut may become increasingly dependent on stimulation. As a result, it may eventually stop moving food along the digestive tract of its own accord.
Using laxatives frequently may also irritate the gut lining, potentially putting a person at risk of having bloody stools.
One case study showed that laxative abuse may have induced rhabdomyolysis, causing the rapid deterioration of muscle tissue and the release of a harmful protein into the bloodstream (10).
A case study reported that laxative use contributed to liver damage in one patient (11).
Another case study showed that overusing laxatives appeared to have caused severe kidney failure requiring dialysis, a treatment that helps remove waste and toxins from the blood (12).
However, more research is needed on the potential long-term effects and safety of laxative use.
Better Ways to Lose Weight
If you are using unhealthy weight loss methods like laxatives, purging or severe food restriction, stop and seek professional help to prevent long-term consequences to your health.
There are many better, safer and more effective ways to lose weight without putting your health on the line.
- Eat more fruits and vegetables: They’re low in calories, but rich in fiber. A higher intake of fruits and vegetables has been associated with a lower body weight (13, 14).
- Increase your physical activity: Participating in aerobic exercise a few times per week can aid in weight loss and help prevent weight regain (15).
- Reduce your portion sizes: Smaller portions mean fewer calories. One study even found that simply using smaller plates caused participants to eat less (16).
- Eat a high-protein breakfast: Starting your day with a protein-packed breakfast has been shown to reduce appetite and food intake over the course of the day (17).
- Decrease your intake of added sugars: Sugar is high in calories, low in nutrients and leads to weight gain. Research shows that drinking sugar-sweetened beverages may be associated with obesity (18).
10 Natural Laxatives to Try for Weight Loss
If you’re looking for ways to lose weight naturally and safely, why not try incorporating some natural laxatives into your routine?
A person may lose some weight when they have a regular bowel movement. How much weight this is differs for every individual. Though not very significant, it is safe and can be more effective when combined with diet and exercise.
Natural laxatives can help relieve constipation and promote regular bowel movements and overall digestive health with only minimal to no side effects.
Here are 20 natural laxatives you may want to try.
1. Chia Seeds
Fiber is a natural treatment and one of the first lines of defense against constipation.
Chia seeds are particularly high in fiber, containing 11 grams in just 1 ounce.
They mainly contain insoluble fiber, but about 3% of the total fiber content consists of soluble fiber (23).
Soluble fiber absorbs water to form a gel, which can aid in forming softer stools to ease constipation (24).
Chia seeds, being rich in fiber can help you feel full too! This also aids weight loss.
Most varieties of berries are relatively high in fiber, making them a great choice as a mild natural laxative
Strawberries contain 3 grams of fiber per cup, blueberries provide 3.6 grams of fiber per cup, and blackberries boast 7.6 grams of fiber per cup.
The American Dietetic Association recommends 25 grams of fiber per day for women and 38 grams of fiber for men to add bulk to stool and prevent chronic disease (25).
Berries contain two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Soluble fiber, such as that in chia seeds, absorbs water in the gut to form a gel-like substance that helps soften stool (26).
Insoluble fiber does not absorb water, but moves through the body intact, increasing the bulk of stool for easier passage (27).
Including a few varieties of berries in your diet is one way to increase your fiber intake and take advantage of their natural laxative properties.
Legumes are a family of edible plants that include beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas and peanuts.
Legumes are high in fiber, which can encourage regularity.
One cup of boiled lentils, for example, contains 15.6 grams of fiber while 1 cup of chickpeas provides 12.5 grams of fiber.
Eating legumes can help increase your body’s production of butyric acid, a type of short-chain fatty acid that may act as a natural laxative.
Studies show that butyric acid could aid in the treatment of constipation by increasing the movement of the digestive tract (28).
It also acts as an anti-inflammatory agent to reduce the intestinal inflammation that may be associated with some digestive disorders, like Crohn’s disease or inflammatory bowel disease.
4. Castor Oil
Produced from castor beans, castor oil has a long history of use as a natural laxative.
After castor oil is consumed, it releases ricinoleic acid, a type of unsaturated fatty acid that’s responsible for its laxative effect.
Ricinoleic acid works by activating a specific receptor in the digestive tract that increases the movement of the intestinal muscles to induce a bowel movement (29).
One study showed that castor oil was able to alleviate constipation symptoms by softening stool consistency, reducing straining during defecation and decreasing the feeling of incomplete evacuation (30).
Apples are high in fiber, providing 3 grams of fiber per cup. Plus, they’re full of pectin, a type of soluble fiber that can act as a laxative.
One study showed that pectin was able to speed up transit time in the colon. It also acted as a prebiotic by increasing the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut to promote digestive health (31).
Another study gave rats apple fiber for two weeks before administering morphine to cause constipation. They found that the apple fiber prevented constipation by stimulating movement in the digestive tract and increasing stool frequency (32).
6. Aloe Vera
Aloe vera latex, a gel that comes from the inner lining of the aloe plant’s leaves, is frequently used as a treatment for constipation.
It gets its laxative effect from anthraquinone glycosides, compounds that draw water into the intestines and stimulate the movement of the digestive tract (33).
One study confirmed the effectiveness of aloe vera by creating a preparation using celandin, psyllium and aloe vera. They found that this mixture was able to effectively soften stools and increase bowel movement frequency (34).
Prunes are probably one of the most well-known natural laxatives out there.
They provide many fiber, with 2 grams in each 1-ounce serving. They also contain a type of sugar alcohol known as sorbitol. Sorbitol is poorly absorbed and acts as an osmotic agent, bringing water into the intestines, which helps induce bowel movements (35).
Kiwifruit has been shown to have laxative properties, making it a convenient way to ease constipation.
This is mostly due to its high fiber content. A cup of kiwifruit contains 5.3 grams of fiber, covering up to 21% of the recommended daily intake.
Kiwifruit contains a mix of both insoluble and soluble fiber. It also contains pectin, which has been shown to have a natural laxative effect (38).
It works by increasing the movement of the digestive tract to stimulate a bowel movement (39).
One four-week study looked at the effects of kiwifruit on both constipated and healthy participants. It found that using kiwifruit as a natural laxative helped alleviate constipation by speeding up transit time in the gut (40).
Derived from the husk and seeds of the plant Plantago ovata, psyllium is a type of fiber with laxative properties.
Though it contains both soluble and insoluble fiber, its high content of soluble fiber is what makes it especially effective in relieving constipation.
Soluble fiber works by absorbing water and forming a gel, which can soften stool and make it easier to pass.
Psyllium has even been shown to be more effective than some prescription laxatives.
One study compared the effects of psyllium to those of docusate sodium, a laxative medication, in the treatment of 170 adults with constipation.
The researchers found that psyllium had a greater effect in softening stool and increasing the frequency of evacuation (41).
For some people, coffee may increase the urge to use the bathroom. It stimulates the muscles in your colon, which can produce a natural laxative effect.
This is largely due to the effects of coffee on gastrin, a hormone that is released after eating. Gastrin is responsible for the secretion of gastric acid, which helps break down food in the stomach (42).
Gastrin has also been shown to increase the movement of the intestinal muscles, which can help speed up intestinal transit and induce a bowel movement.
One study gave participants 100 ml of coffee, then measured their gastrin levels.
Compared to the control group, gastrin levels were 1.7 times higher for participants who drank decaffeinated coffee and 2.3 times higher for those who drank caffeinated coffee (43).
In fact, other studies have shown that caffeinated coffee can stimulate your digestive tract as much as a meal and up to 60% more than water (44).
Laxatives can be an effective remedy for increasing bowel movements and preventing constipation. However, laxative use is unlikely to lead to long-lasting weight loss.
Furthermore, laxative abuse can come with many dangerous health effects, including dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and dangerous health conditions.
If you’re looking to lose weight, make small changes to your diet, including natural laxatives and engage in regular physical activity. These solutions are safer, more effective and more sustainable in the long run.