FROM A READER:
I have been taking a slimming herbal tea for almost a year now. I take it every night. I am worried and not sure if this herbal tea is safe (or if it) may cause fertility problems in the long run. Is it safe to drink this tea every night before sleeping? Will there be any side effects? Are the ingredients safe for consumption? Or will I have problems conceiving? Please help me. This is a very crucial question. I'm so afraid that this could affect my menstrual cycle and giving birth.
There are two kinds of "slimming" or "diet" herbal teas-those that contain laxatives and/or diuretics (senna is a common ingredient) and those that contain herbs like ma huang that suppress the appetite but can also cause nervousness, sleeplessness and palpitation. Slimming teas should not be confused with other herbal teas like green tea, chamomile, ginger, peppermint, etc.
The slimming tea that the reader is talking about (she mentioned the brand in her e-mail but I decided not to reveal it) is of the laxative variety and contains senna.
Using senna on a daily basis is not safe because the herb is a "stimulant laxative" that works by irritating the colon to empty its contents. Stimulant 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 colon weak and sluggish.
This means that your colon may no longer function properly on its own and you may not be able to go to the bathroom without the tea. This is great for manufacturers since you are now part of a captive market and they can count on your being a loyal client for years to come. But this is not good news for you because the longer you use herbal stimulant laxatives, the greater the risk of permanently damaging your colon. Also, some studies suggest that long-term use of senna is associated with a higher risk of colon cancer.
It is much safer to use a fiber "bulking agent" like psyllium or wheat bran if you suffer from constipation. Fiber, whether from a supplement or from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, will not damage your colon. Make sure you drink a lot of water with the fiber. Regular abdominal exercises also help because contracting your abdominal muscles massages the intestines.
The other danger of using slimming teas is the excessive loss of water from chronic diarrhea. This can lead to dehydration and the loss of electrolytes and 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.
This is what happened to 37-year-old June Grell of California in 1991. She had been drinking a slimming tea containing senna for several months when she died unexpectedly and suddenly in her sleep. Several physicians involved in her case pointed to the senna in the tea as the reason why she died from severe cardiac arrhythmia.
Her death inspired her lawyer-husband, Christopher Grell, to become a leading advocate for the regulation of herbal laxatives and diuretics. His relentless campaigning resulted in the passing of a California regulation requiring a warning to consumers on the labels of products containing herbal laxatives like senna. The warning states, in part, that "chronic use of laxatives can impair colon function" and that "acute or chronic diarrhea may result in serious injury or death."
Many dieters take slimming teas because they believe that frequent bowel movements will prevent the food they eat from being absorbed. However, 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. This is because the laxatives do not work on the small intestine, where calories are absorbed, but rather on the colon, the lower end of the bowel."
Apparently though, if you take laxatives in very large doses for prolonged periods, absorption of fat is impaired, which can cause greasy diarrhea and weight loss. This is according to the Columbia University medical team behind the popular Go Ask Alice! health website. Laxative abuse is a common practice among anorexics and bulimics. The trade-off for weight loss may be permanent gastrointestinal tract damage and osteomalacia (softening of the bones) due to poor absorption of Vitamin D and calcium. Death could also come knocking at your door just like it did for four women whose deaths were reported to the FDA. All the women were on restrictive diets and were abusing herbal stimulant laxatives.
According to Dr. Rebecca Singson, gynecologist and obstetrician at the Makati Medical Hospital and Asian Hospital, slimming teas are not known to directly interfere with the menstrual cycle or fertility unless they cause rapid weight loss.
She says, however, that it is not safe for pregnant women to be taking laxatives and diuretics of any kind. Responsible herbalists also do not recommend the use of senna and other herbal laxatives during pregnancy. Therefore, if you are trying to conceive, the wisest thing to do would be to stop taking the slimming tea because you don't know when you will get pregnant. If you continue taking the tea, you might be drinking it when you are in the early stages of pregnancy and don't even know yet that you are pregnant.
According to the FDA, other herbal laxatives aside from senna are cascara sagrada, aloe, 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.
The FDA also warns that you should 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.