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October 19, 1999

Dieter's Brews Make Tea Time A Dangerous Affair

Washington, D.C. (SafetyAlerts) - A cup of hot herbal tea may feel soothing to the soul, but instead of soothing the body, some herbal teas can make you sick if they are misused.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this can be especially true with those teas called "dieter's teas".   The stimulant laxative teas and dietary supplements which the FDA is most concerned about contain one or more of the substances senna, aloe, rhubarb root, buckthorn, cascara, and castor oil. These plant-derived products have been used since ancient times for their ability to promote bowel movements and relieve constipation. Several, such as cascara, senna and castor oil, also are available as over-the-counter drug laxatives and are regulated as drugs.

The FDA has stated that , when consumed in excessive amounts, these products could result in diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, stomach cramps, chronic constipation, fainting, and perhaps death.

Although these products are often are used for weight loss based on the consumers' belief that increased bowel movements will prevent absorption of calories, a special committee of FDA's Food Advisory Committee concluded that studies show laxative-induced diarrhea does not significantly reduce absorption of calories.

In recent years, the FDA has received "adverse event" reports, including the deaths of four young women, in which dieter's teas may have been a contributing factor.

As a result, FDA is advising consumers to follow package directions carefully when using dieter's teas and other dietary supplements containing senna, aloe, and other stimulant laxatives. Consumers should seek medical attention for persistent diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and other bowel problems to prevent more serious complications.

Some of these substances also are used in much smaller quantities as natural flavorings in other foods. As such, they are regulated by FDA as food additives or "generally recognized as safe" substances. FDA has not received any information suggesting that these substances pose a hazard when used in the amounts normally needed to provide flavoring.

Adverse Effects

Reports filed with the FDA indicate that users tend to experience adverse effects when they misuse the products.  Examples of misuse include steeping the tea longer than product labeling recommends or drinking more than the recommended amount.

The reports indicate three types of adverse events:

  • Short-term: stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea lasting several days. These symptoms are likely to occur in first-time users who drink more than the recommended amount.
  • Chronic: chronic diarrhea, pain and constipation due to laxative dependency, which causes a sluggish bowel. In one report to FDA, a person who reported using herbal products with stimulant laxatives for decades suffered severe pain and constipation from loss of colon function and required surgery to remove the colon. People who develop chronic problems usually have used these types of products for years.
  • Severe: fainting, dehydration and electrolyte disorders (for example, low blood potassium, a condition that can cause paralysis, irregular heartbeat, and possibly death). People who develop severe problems tend to be those who are nutritionally compromised, partly as a result of drastic reductions in food intake--for example, rigorous weight-loss dieters and people with the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Four deaths reported to FDA involved women with a history of such medical problems. According to information presented at a 1995 meeting of FDA's Food Advisory Committee, these herbal stimulant laxatives may have been a contributing factor in their deaths.

Consumer Action

To help protect yourself from experiencing these adverse events in conjunction with using these products it is recommended that consumers:

  • Read and follow package directions carefully.
  • Stop using the product if diarrhea, loose stools, or stomach pain develop.
  • See a doctor if frequent diarrhea develops.
  • See a doctor before using the product if the user is pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or has a medical condition.

Consumers and health professionals should report adverse effects associated with use of laxative teas or supplements to FDA by calling FDA's MedWatch adverse event and product problem hotline at 1-800-FDA-1088. Additional information about the MedWatch program can be found at on FDA's Website. They also may write to FDA at 5600 Fishers Lane, HFC-160, Rockville, MD 20857.

The report should include:

  • name, address and telephone number of the person who became ill
  • name and address of the doctor or hospital providing medical treatment
  • description of the problem
  • name of the product and store where it was bought.

Consumers also should report the problem to the manufacturer or distributor listed on the product's label and to the store where the product was bought.

Safety Alerts compiles comprehensive safety recall information for the United States. SafeMail is a free email service to warn consumers of faulty products and contaminated foods. For complete information regarding current recalls, past recalls and timely product warning notification visit:


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