Most supplements and herbal ingredients featured in weight loss teas are not regulated. As a result, the majority of the health hazards these seemingly harmless teas embody are not fully disclosed to users.
Weight loss teas very often are a strong cocktail of herbs which are either natural stimulants to drive you up, bulk fibers which fill up your digestive system, diuretics which make you pee or laxatives which cause diarrhea. Aloe, Senna, Rhubarb Root, Cascara, Buckthorn, Ma Huang and Castor Oil are examples found in most slimming teas. These herbs are considered to be “all-natural” ingredients. However “all natural” does not mean they are safe. Besides the way there are currently used differs from their indigenous application. There’s also limited scientific evidence to confirm that slimming teas are effective in weight loss.
Unfortunately, all of the above mentioned ingredients come with side effects that can even be worse if users drink slimming tea on an empty stomach.
Various Ways Slimming Teas “Work”
- As stimulants : As the name suggests, stimulants increase alertness, attention and energy, as well as elevate blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. They also reduce appetite. That’s why certain individuals experience a racing heartbeat or short-term feeling of increased energy after ingesting these natural stimulants. In the case of Ma Huang, the FDA actually warns against it because Ma Huang (ephedra) has been reported to cause serious, even fatal, side effects such as heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeats, and sudden death (1). The use of Ma Huang may be dangerous if you have any of the conditions listed below:
- heart disease, angina (chest pain), irregular heartbeats, high blood pressure or blood vessel disease
- asthma or other lung disease
- insomnia (inability to sleep)
- eating disorders (such as anorexia or bulimia)
- kidney disease
- liver disease or hepatitis
- hyperthyroidism(hyperactive thyroid gland)
- mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, mania, bipolar disorder or psychosis
- prostate problems
- urinary retention
- epilepsy (fainting fits)
- As laxatives or purgatives: A laxative (or purgative) induces bowel movements or loosens the stool.Contrary to popular belief, moving food quickly through your digestive system does not cut down on the number of calories that you absorb and process. The overuse of laxatives can lead to dehydration and life threatening electrolyte imbalance affecting the heart and consciousness (low potassium and sodium levels respectively). Laxatives (whether herbal or laboratory-made) should not be used for more than one week because prolonged use can make the muscular walls of the bowels weak and sluggish and they may no longer function properly without the tea. Your bowels literally become “addicted” to laxatives and may not function without them. That is good news for the manufacturers because you’ll keep coming back for more tea but bad news for your health and your wallet. In extreme cases complete loss of bowel movements could result and should be treated as an emergency. Moreover chronic use of laxatives containing senna on some occasions causes pigmentation of the intestines, pseudomelanosis coli (2) and this has been associated to an increase in the risk of colorectal cancer (3). Laxatives irritate the walls of the bowels and cause massive death of cells and the natural barriers are destroyed, leaving you vulnerable to germs. If inflammation becomes chronic, resorption of important vitamins and minerals like vitamin D and calcium may be impaired leading to soft bones and an increased risk for fractures. Other adverse effects include nausea, stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, fainting, rectal bleeding.
- As bulk fibers: Bulk fibers generate a feeling of fullness by swelling up when they come into contact with water in your stomach or bowels. They might cause cramping, bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort as your body attempts to work through the bulk. And if you’re not drinking enough water to help move the bulk through your system, constipation may result. This is the main problem because dieters tend to take them on empty stomachs. If the constipation isn’t resolved, it can lead to an intestinal blockage, -the most dangerous side effect associated with excessive fiber intake. When the intestines become blocked, food and wastes can no longer move through. Immediate medical attention and maybe even surgery is necessary to resolve the situation.
- As Diuretics: Diuretics are substances that increase your amount of urine by forcing out electrolytes and water. They could be coined “water pills”. Through the diuretic effect of some teas dieters tend to loose water weight but the effect doesn’t last long and it is dangerous both for the kidneys and heart. Through dehydration and loss of electrolytes, especially potassium, serious heart complications including sudden death may result.
Take home facts:
- “All Natural” does not equal safe!
- Strict dieters and people with eating disorders are more likely to suffer the severe health effects of herbal weight loss teas since their nutritional status is already compromised.
- Slimming teas may cause permanent damage to the intestinal tract and in extreme cases this could lead to surgery.
- Women’s bodies and metabolisms are even more susceptible to the effects of herbal weight loss teas.
- Although these herbal weight loss teas do not directly interfere with women’s menstrual cycles and fertility, women are encouraged to stop using these herbal teas if they are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
- Slimming teas cause massive death of the cells of the bowel walls thus taking away its natural barrier and making it vulnerable to germs.
- pseudomelanosis coli caused by some slimming teas could lead to colon cancer
- slimming teas could lead to dehydration and loss of electrolytes/minerals like calcium, magnesium and, most importantly, potassium. Low potassium levels can cause muscle weakness, paralysis and cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heart beat). In a worst case scenario, it can lead to death.
- the trade-off for weight loss may be osteomalacia (softening of the bones) due to poor absorption of Vitamin D and calcium by damaged intestines. This increases your risk of developing fractures
- according to an article in FDA Consumer Magazine, “a special committee of FDA’s Food Advisory Committee concluded in 1995 that studies show laxative-induced diarrhea does not significantly reduce absorption of calories because laxatives do not work on the small intestine, where calories are absorbed, but rather on the colon, the lower end of the bowel.”
- most notable health risk of herbal weight loss teas is the possibility of a dangerous interaction with prescription drugs.
What can be done differently:
- Check in with your doctor before using slimming teas
- if you must use slimming teas, donot extend beyond a week.
- use alternative sources of fiber like fruits, vegetables and whole grains
- drink water when using fiber based teas
- Regular abdominal exercises also help bowel movements because contracting your abdominal muscles massages the intestines.
- check the content of your tea and watch out for senna, cascara sagrada, rhubarb root, buckthorn and castor oil. (Senna may be listed under its Latin name, Cassia angustifolia.) These substances should not be taken for more than one week and dosages should not exceed the manufacturer’s recommendations.
- Do not steep the tea longer than is recommended because this can make the effect stronger.
- seek medical attention if you experience persistent diarrhea, abdominal cramps or other bowel problems while you are using herbal laxatives.
The bottom line is that even prominent herbalists like the late Varro Tyler, author of “The Honest Herbal,” do not recommend the daily use of senna or any other herbal stimulant laxative either for weight loss or for constipation.
(2) van Gorkom BAP, Karrenbeld A, van Der Sluisa T, Koudstaal J, de Vries EGE, Kleibeuker JH. Influence of a highly purified senna extract on colonic epithelium. Digestion. 2000;61(2):113–120. [PubMed]
(3) van Gorkom BAP, Karrenbeld A, van der Sluis T, Zwart N, de Vries EGE, Kleibeuker JH. Apoptosis induction by sennoside laxatives in man: escape from a protective mechanism during chronic sennoside use? Journal of Pathology. 2001;194(4):493–499. [PubMed]