Eating Disorders and Laxative Abuse

By Tennie McCarty, LCDC, ADC III, CEDS Founder and CEO of Shades of Hope Treatment Center

Eating Disorders and Laxative Abuse

An eating disorder is characterized by abnormal eating patterns that attempt to satisfy a psychological, rather than physical need. The three most common disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Anorexia is characterized by self-starvation, weight loss, an irrational fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image. Bulimia nervosa is characterized by a cycle of compulsive bingeing followed by purging through various means, such as vomiting, laxative or diuretic abuse and extreme exercising. Binge-eating disorder is the most common disorder and is characterized by frequent periods of compulsive overeating without purging behaviors.

All three of the eating disorders play off of each other. Rarely does someone just practice one. Most of those that suffer with eating disorders usually will have a primary pattern, but all three must be addressed. For instance, many people start their eating disorder in childhood by overeating and gaining weight.  They sometimes start dieting and lose weight. Receiving compliments feeds their self-esteem and the dieting turns to restricting. The eating disorder then takes on a life of its own, going from overeating to self-starvation. At this point many are unable to control the bingeing and that is when bulimia is introduced.

We see all three eating disorders going through the addiction cycle much like drugs and alcohol. The overeater is much like an alcoholic in that food and alcohol gives a numbing out affect – easing the pain of living.

On the other end of the spectrum is anorexia. The payoff for anorexia is the feeling of being "in control." The anorexic may not be able to control what is going on in their life, but the one thing they can control is what goes in their mouths. The anorexic feels powerful. However, it’s a false sense of empowerment.

Bulimia gives two “hits.” The bulimic will eat massive amounts of calories, using the excess food to numb the pain. This process is very short lived because the fear of gaining weight is so powerful that the next thought is to get rid of the food. Some people vomit, some exercise to extremes, or take laxatives hoping to get the excess calories out of the body as quickly as they can. What the bulimic gets addicted to is the feeling of release, that sense of ease and comfort that follows a binge. For a few brief moments, the bulimic has a feeling that all is well with the world. This feeling of euphoria is short lived and is followed by feelings of guilt and remorse with the promise to “never do that again,” only to return to the disease day after day and year after year. The predicted outcomes are being institutionalized for life, death or recovery. This disease is serious and must be taken seriously.

Bulimics who use laxatives believe that they can prevent their bodies from absorbing food by fast elimination. However, nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, and laxatives work mainly in the large intestine. The only weight a person “loses” with a laxative is water. Bulimics often overuse laxatives, which can lead to inflammation of the intestinal lining, damage to the colon, severe dehydration and decreased levels of potassium and sodium. Ironically, overuse of laxatives can cause constipation.

Any use of laxatives, other than for occasional constipation, is bulimia. Laxative bulimia, like all addictions, starts small. One to two, then three to four, and on and on. Some bulimics will use as many as 30-100 laxatives per day. The bulimic uses more and more because they have built up a tolerance to the laxative.

With laxative bulimia, as with the other two eating disorders, there is a physical problem but the main problem is in the mind. It is a mental and emotional problem that must be addressed or the bulimic will switch to other medicators such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, love, sex – anything to ease the pain of living.

It’s not what you are eating but what’s eating you. 

There is hope. There is healing.

At Shades of Hope we recognize people need options in treating their laxatives abuse, food addiction or other issues. Some are just “dabbling” and only use after a big meal or only binge at night. But for others it is an obsession  – a daily ritual, the need to use. That is why Shades of Hope offers several different programs from a 6-day intensive to a 12-week program and several in between. Visit the Shades of Hope website or call 800-488-4673.  

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