The one part of eating disorders no one wants to talk about: Laxative abuse
Eating disorders – bulimia, in particular – involve a lot more than just disordered eating habits.
A large number of those who live with bulimia or anorexia live with a variety of dangerous habits all centered around losing weight. For some, this may involve excessive exercise. For others, it may involve vomiting to purge food after a binge. And, for many, living with an eating disorder involves regularly abusing laxatives.
The phenomenon is rarely talked about, except in whispers within communities for those living with eating disorders. Laxatives aren’t something people like to talk about. As Gianluca Russo puts it, “laxative abuse is taboo.”
Russo would know better than most. She has lived with laxative abuse since she was a teenager.
It all started with a trip to a dietician at 15-years-old. Russo, like many young women, was struggling with her body image and sought someone she thought she could trust to advise her in healthy ways to lose weight.
Along with an extensive dietary plan, the dietician told Gianluca to begin taking one laxative a day.
While Russo would eventually ditch the diet, her use of laxatives has been harder to escape.
“For two months, I followed the diet closely and took the laxative pills every day, sometimes twice a day if I had cheated on my food plan,” she says. “But as I fell off the diet for a variety of reasons, the weight came back. What stayed was my abuse of laxatives, an on-and-off addiction that I struggle to break free from to this day.”
Of course, Russo is far from the only young woman dealing with body-image issues that resorted to using laxatives to lose weight. The practice stems from the faulty belief that a person can purge out food and calories before they absorbed, while still being able to eat in public. However, any weight loss that comes from laxatives isn’t from removing calories. It is the result of chronic dehydration.
Over time, laxative abuse also carries a number of severe health risks.
“With laxative abuse after awhile, the laxatives really irritate the intestinal nerve endings so then we see the irritation throughout the gut and the nerve endings no longer respond to the stimulation, so the person has to take greater and greater amounts of the laxatives to have a bowel movement,” Tanja Haaland explained to Russo.
Haaland is clinical director of the Meadows, an eating disorder rehab facility in Arizona.
“It’s really no different than someone struggling with drug addiction or alcohol addiction — the person’s tolerance gets greater and greater. They become laxative-dependent and without them, they might not have any bowel movement at all.”
Eating disorders can take many forms, and it is important to realize the ways they can manifest in young, impressionable people. While some advocates argue they should be removed from shelves, there is also the argument that laxatives are only dangerous when misused. In the meantime, it is essential that parents monitor their children’s behavior for signs of laxative abuse and have open conversations about body image.
If you believe you or someone you love may be struggling with disordered eating or laxative abuse, please call Brookhaven for help at 888-298-HOPE (4673). We can answer any questions you have and find the right treatment plan for you.