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Over-the-counter laxatives are often used to prevent constipation or help with losing excess weight. This practice, however, is associated with serious health risks and hardly ever achieves a lasting positive effect.

Laxatives are foods or drugs that are eaten or taken with the sole purpose of increasing stool frequency and the ease at which they are passed. There are many recognized natural laxatives, such as prunes, apples, broccoli and beans, among others. These natural laxatives are all high in certain vitamins and minerals, particularly potassium, and are also high in dietary fiber. These properties mean they have a positive effect on digestion and, consequently, can help to relieve constipation.

However in more severe cases, a doctor’s input may be needed in order to combat constipation, and that is where laxative drugs may come into play. Laxatives are safely prescribed by physicians to treat chronic constipation, which is defined as the infrequent passage of stools lasting more than three months.

These laxatives act in several different ways, including bulking the stool volume, softening stool consistency, and lubricating the stool to pass through more easily.

Laxatives: Use Vs Abuse

Problems occur when the use of laxatives turns into laxative abuse. With the plethora of information available today on the internet, many people self-diagnose themselves and turn to over-the-counter medicines in an effort to cure themselves without the need to visit a doctor, which can be a costly process. A recent study reported that 16 percent of people with constipation admitted to self-diagnosing and using laxatives. The same study also reported that this trend was associated with increasing age, symptom frequency and lower income and education. Laxatives are also not recognized or recommended by anyone medically qualified as an effective or appropriate way to lose weight, yet they are misused throughout the world with that intent. Although they may be prescribed in cases of chronic constipation, doctors warn against persistent use of laxatives even in these cases because of concerns over colonic tissue wearing out, which can cause the body to be unable to expel stools due to long-term over-stimulation.

However in today’s society of glamour and beauty, which is more often than not associated with thinness, people are going to extreme lengths to try to lose weight, often at the expense of their health.

One study showed that the United States has the highest rate of laxative use globally with Americans spending more than $800 million a year on the drugs. This is an alarming statistic, particularly given that many people have not educated themselves in how to use laxatives correctly. Taking laxatives is commonly regarded as a "quick-fix" way of losing weight, and while many are available over the counter, they are often abused in this way. Frequent bowl movements caused by the drugs gives people the false message that their bodies are being cleansed and that they are therefore losing weight at their desired speed. In extreme cases, this behavior is classified as a variant of Bulimia, a serious eating disorder.

Continue reading after recommendations

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  • Wald A et al, 2008, A multinational survey of prevalence and patterns of laxative use among adults with self-defined constipation. Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics, 28(7), 917-930
  • Muller-Lissner S, 1993, Adverse Effects of Laxatives: Fact and Fiction. Pharmacology, 47, 138-145
  • Faigel DO, 2002, A clinical approach to constipation. Clinical Cornerstone, 4(4), 11-21
  • Xing JH and Soffer EE, 2001, Adverse effects of laxatives. Diseases of the Colon & Rectum, 44(8), 1201-1209.
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