Laxatives To Lose Weight: Are They Safe & Do They Really Work In 2024?

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Reviewed by Maya Frankfurt, PhD
laxatives to lose weight
Weight loss associated with laxatives is often temporary. Photo: Prostock-studio/shutterstock

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In the United States, an estimated two-thirds of adults are considered overweight. In response, a growing variety of weight loss strategies have been promoted. In addition to advice for maintaining a healthy diet and exercise plans, there are many detox programs, medications, and over-the-counter supplements meant to offer additional support. 

Some individuals consider using laxatives to lose weight, often drawn by the potential for rapid weight loss. These medications do have the potential for side effects, and there are some serious safety concerns. 

This raises a few important questions. What are some examples of different kinds of laxatives? Do laxatives actually work for weight loss, and how can we ensure they are used safely? 

Do Laxatives Make You Lose Weight?

Yes, laxatives can make you lose weight temporarily. There are some important factors to consider: 

  • In many instances, the weight loss may be temporary because it is primarily water weight. 
  • While this may allow for relatively rapid weight loss in the short term, it may not be helpful for longer-term success with weight management. 
  • When laxatives are considered for weight loss, there are also some very important safety concerns to be aware of.

What Are Laxatives?

Laxatives are medications that promote bowel movements. These are also sometimes used as a part of detox or weight loss programs. Understanding how these medications work provides insight into how they may be beneficial and how they may have the potential to cause unhealthy imbalances. 

There are a variety of types of laxatives,[1] each with a unique approach to producing stools: 

  • Stimulant laxatives: These promote peristalsis, which is the contraction of smooth muscle in the intestines. As these muscles relax and contract, waste products are moved further along the digestive tract. Examples are senna and bisacodyl. 
  • Osmotic laxatives: These laxatives work by pulling water from the rest of the body into the digestive tract. This increase in water promotes increased bowel movements. Examples are magnesium and polyethylene glycol (Miralax). Saline laxatives are also a type of osmotic laxative. 
  • Bulk-forming laxatives: These laxatives often provide a more gradual improvement in constipation symptoms. They work by absorbing water and adding bulk to the stool, aiding stool passage. Examples are psyllium (Metamucil) and methylcellulose (Citrucel). 
  • Lubricant laxatives: Lubricants are meant to coat the interior lining of the digestive tract, promoting easier bowel movement production. A common example is mineral oil. 
  • Stool softeners: These are often used with laxatives to promote more comfortable stool passage. 

Are Laxatives Safe For Weight Loss?

laxatives to lose weight
Laxatives are not intended to be used for weight loss. Photo: Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Safety with any medication is defined by dosage and duration of use. Laxatives are easily accessible over-the-counter because the intended use is clearly labeled, including when to consult a healthcare professional. Most laxatives are intended specifically to relieve constipation and are not meant to be used for longer than five to seven days. 

When laxatives are used at higher doses or for durations longer than intended, harmful side effects are more likely. Laxative abuse has been a significant concern, partially due to the correlation between laxative use and eating disorders like bulimia nervosa.[2] Some of the signs of a potential eating disorder include: 

  • Preoccupation with body image and appearing thin.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Withdrawal from friends and family. 
  • Shame and guilt associated with eating. 

Laxatives are safe when they are used appropriately to treat constipation. They are not recommended for repeated use for the purpose of weight loss. 

How Can Laxatives Contribute To Weight Loss?

There are no studies supporting the use of most laxatives for reductions in body weight. Using laxatives for weight loss can provide temporary weight loss, often by reducing water weight. This weight loss is unlikely to be maintained over time, however, and in some cases, it may actually result in rebound weight gain[3] due to fluid and electrolyte disturbances. 

Abdominal bloating[4] can sometimes be caused by constipation. Under these circumstances, laxatives may help reduce bloating and aid in the appearance of a slimmer waistline. It is important to remember that this is not necessarily a sign that you are losing body fat. 

The only exception for laxatives potentially being recommended for weight loss is considering bulk-forming laxatives in the form of fiber supplements. Psyllium[5] has been associated with reduced calorie intake, likely due to improved satiety or fewer food cravings. It also has an improved safety profile compared with other laxatives. 

It is always best to ensure your doctor does a thorough review before starting any over-the-counter supplements or laxatives meant to help with weight loss to ensure it is the best treatment for you. 

Side Effects Of Laxatives

laxatives to lose weight
Misusing laxatives can lead to serious side effects. Photo: Africa Studio/shutterstock

Depending on the type of laxative, there may be side effects from taking it. 

Gastrointestinal Side Effects

Laxatives always have the potential to cause diarrhea. The most common side effects are also related to the digestive tract: 

  • Stomach cramps.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Increased gas, often temporarily.
  • Increased bloating, often temporarily.

If you are experiencing diarrhea or vomiting, these side effects should not be taken lightly because they can lead to more serious complications. 

Dehydration And Electrolyte Imbalance

Any product that has the potential to cause diarrhea or vomiting may lead to dehydration. This can be particularly true for products that work specifically by drawing water away from the rest of the body, like osmotic laxatives. If you are experiencing diarrhea or vomiting, it is helpful to be aware of the signs of dehydration:[6]

  • Excessive thirst.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Dark urine. 
  • Dizziness.
  • Drowsiness. 

If you are using a laxative, it is important  to ensure you are drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated regardless of whether you are experiencing these symptoms. Diarrhea and vomiting cause your body to lose electrolytes, which can lead to an imbalance. Taking some time to rest and limiting physical activity can also be helpful. 

If any of the following are occurring, seeking immediate medical attention is recommended: 

  • Fainting.
  • Confusion.
  • Increased rate of breathing.
  • Increased heart rate. 

If electrolyte imbalances caused by dehydration are left untreated, they can be very dangerous. The potential outcomes include kidney damage, seizures, and other serious disorders. 

How To Use Laxatives To Lose Weight Safely

So, are laxatives good for weight loss? Should you take two laxatives a day to lose weight? Unless two laxatives is the correct amount as prescribed or as advised on the laxative drug label, do not take more medication than advised.

In general, laxatives are not recommended for weight loss. They are considered safe and effective specifically for managing constipation, but are not meant to be used frequently. Even when using laxatives for constipation it is recommended to consult your doctor if your over-the-counter efforts have not successfully produced a stool after seven days. 

Fiber supplements are a potential exception to this rule, as they do provide some health benefits and are much safer for longer-term use. In addition to improving the regularity of bowel movements, psyllium offers several beneficial effects:[7] 

  • Lowers cholesterol levels. 
  • Improves blood glucose control. 
  • Lowers blood pressure. 

If you are wondering how often you should take laxatives to lose weight, fiber is the only option that may be recommended for daily use. Fiber is also the safest method for achieving support compared with alternative laxatives. It is always best to speak with your doctor prior to starting any new medications or supplements for weight loss. 

Healthier Tips To Lose Weight

Regardless of whether you choose to use medications or supplements, a healthy diet and exercise are always recommended. A reliable method for losing weight is burning more calories than you consume, which is called a caloric deficit. Working with a registered dietitian can help you maintain an appropriate balance of nutrients, avoiding any deficits caused by dietary restrictions. 

Cardiovascular training exercises like running, cycling, or swimming are excellent for weight loss. Staying hydrated is important in general, particularly if you are exercising. 

Do not neglect your mental health. When stress is poorly managed it can make habits like overeating and skipping exercise more likely. Your mental health is central to your overall wellbeing and should not be taken for granted. 

Conclusion

Weight loss can be a difficult journey and it can be tempting to look for shortcuts along your path. Laxatives aid weight loss in a temporary fashion, and misusing laxatives can have serious consequences. Prior to starting any medications or supplements for weight loss, consulting your doctor will help you ensure you are choosing an option that is likely to be safe and effective for your individual needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do laxatives get rid of the food you just ate?

No. Food is initially processed by your stomach and then makes its way to your small intestine where nutrients are absorbed. Laxatives treat and avoid constipation by keeping waste products moving in the digestive tract after nutrients have been absorbed.

Do laxatives help you lose belly fat?

If you are experiencing bloating that is being caused by constipation, laxatives may help relieve bloating symptoms. This can result in the appearance of a slimmer waistline but is not necessarily indicative of fat loss.

Do laxatives flush out calories?

Laxatives primarily flush out water and waste. They do not prevent calorie absorption.

+ 7 Sources

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  1. Jani, B. and Marsicano, E. (2018). Constipation: Evaluation and Management. Missouri medicine, [online] 115(3), pp.236–240. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6140151/.
  2. Levinson, J.A., Sarda, V., Sonneville, K.R., Calzo, J.P., Suman Ambwani and S. Bryn Austin (2020). Diet Pill and Laxative Use for Weight Control and Subsequent Incident Eating Disorder in US Young Women: 2001–2016. American Journal of Public Health, [online] 110(1), pp.109–111. doi:https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2019.305390.
  3. Aditya Ragunathan, Singh, P., Gosal, K., Scibelli, N. and Collier, V. (2021). Laxative Abuse Cessation Leading to Severe Edema. Cureus. [online] doi:https://doi.org/10.7759/cureus.15847.
  4. Patel, S., Doerfler, B., Boutros, K., Ng, S., Manuel, M. and DeSimone, E. (2021). Review of Treatment Options for Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Constipation and Chronic Idiopathic Constipation. International Journal of General Medicine, [online] Volume 14, pp.1457–1468. doi:https://doi.org/10.2147/ijgm.s274568.
  5. McRorie, J.W., Gibb, R., Sloan, K.J. and McKeown, N.M. (2021). Psyllium. Nutrition Today, [online] 56(4), pp.169–182. doi:https://doi.org/10.1097/nt.0000000000000489.
  6. Shaheen, N.A., Abdulrahman Ali Alqahtani, Hussam Assiri, Reem Alkhodair and Hussein, M. (2018). Public knowledge of dehydration and fluid intake practices: variation by participants’ characteristics. BMC Public Health, [online] 18(1). doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-6252-5.
  7. McRorie, J.W., Gibb, R., Sloan, K.J. and McKeown, N.M. (2021). Psyllium. Nutrition Today, [online] 56(4), pp.169–182. doi:https://doi.org/10.1097/nt.0000000000000489.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Matthew Sommers is a clinical pharmacist with more than 10 years of experience in the pharmacy profession. He has most recently transitioned from a leadership role in a community setting into clinical practice with a focus… See More