Laxative abuse: epidemiology, diagnosis and management

Drugs. 2010 Aug 20;70(12):1487-503. doi: 10.2165/11898640-000000000-00000.


Laxatives have been used for health purposes for over 2000 years, and for much of that time abuse or misuse of laxatives has occurred. Individuals who abuse laxatives can generally be categorized as falling into one of four groups. By far the largest group is made up of individuals suffering from an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa. The prevalence of laxative abuse has been reported to range from approximately 10% to 60% of individuals in this group. The second group consists of individuals who are generally middle aged or older who begin using laxatives when constipated but continue to overuse them. This pattern may be promulgated on certain beliefs that daily bowel movements are necessary for good health. The third group includes individuals engaged in certain types of athletic training, including sports with set weight limits. The fourth group contains surreptitious laxative abusers who use the drugs to cause factitious diarrhoea and may have a factitious disorder. Normal bowel function consists of the absorption of nutrients, electrolytes and water from the gut. Most nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, while the large bowel absorbs primarily water. There are several types of laxatives available, including stimulant agents, saline and osmotic products, bulking agents and surfactants. The most frequently abused group of laxatives are of the stimulant class. This may be related to the quick action of stimulants, particularly in individuals with eating disorders as they may erroneously believe that they can avoid the absorption of calories via the resulting diarrhoea. Medical problems associated with laxative abuse include electrolyte and acid/base changes that can involve the renal and cardiovascular systems and may become life threatening. The renin-aldosterone system becomes activated due to the loss of fluid, which leads to oedema and acute weight gain when the laxative is discontinued. This can result in reinforcing further laxative abuse when a patient feels bloated and has gained weight. Treatment begins with a high level of suspicion, particularly when a patient presents with alternating diarrhoea and constipation as well as other gastrointestinal complaints. Checking serum electrolytes and the acid/base status can identify individuals who may need medical stabilization and confirm the severity of the abuse. The first step in treating laxative misuse once it is identified is to determine what may be promoting the behaviour, such as an eating disorder or use based on misinformation regarding what constitutes a healthy bowel habit. The first intervention would be to stop the stimulant laxatives and replace them with fibre/osmotic supplements utilized to establish normal bowel movements. Education and further treatment may be required to maintain a healthy bowel programme. In the case of an eating disorder, referral for psychiatric treatment is essential to lessen the reliance on laxatives as a method to alter weight and shape.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Laxatives / adverse effects*
  • Prevalence
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / therapy


  • Laxatives