We know that diet “drugs” are dangerous, but many consumers believe that herbal anti-obesity products must be safe. A 2009 study by a researcher from the Chinese University of Hong Kong published in the journal Drug Safety cautions that herbal anti-obesity products can have serious dangers. Herbs touted for their weight loss benefits are not proven to be effective, and, warns researcher Thomas Chan, they could seriously harm your health.
Herbal products have for so long been associated with “gentle” and “natural” alternatives to drugs that it’s easy to forget that herbs can be poisons. In fact, humans learned about our first “drugs” from herbal medicines. Today, there are two main differences between herbal remedies and drugs. Drugs are carefully regulated, but herbal remedies aren’t. Drugs have to reveal precise information about contents and dosage, but herbal remedies don’t.
“Herbs” Can Be Toxic
So, as the study in Drug Safety points out, the levels of active ingredients you would be exposed to when taking an herbal product isn’t necessarily consistent, and the effects those products might have on your health aren’t necessarily predictable. The herbs that are often used in products marketed for weight loss include several toxic (yes, poisonous) herbs. Members of the species Aristolochia have been shown to cause cancer and to attack the kidneys. But you can’t avoid Aristolochia just by reading the label; Chan’s study found that members of this species are often accidentally included in herbal diet aids.
Specific laxatives of a group called anthranoid are often used in weight loss products; these include names you’ve likely seen, including cassia, senna, rhubarb, and aloe. Although the research on this group of laxatives is mixed, some studies indicate a connection between long-term use of these laxatives and colorectal cancer. Other dangerous herbs that may appear (whether or not they’re on the label) in herbal weight loss remedies include ephedrine and related products, which can cause a variety of heart problems from high blood pressure and erratic pulse to heart attack, stroke, seizures, and death.
Herbs Can Interact with Your Medications
Many of these herbs can interact with medications you might be taking—but since your doctor and your pharmacist can’t be certain what’s in a particular herbal supplement, they can’t warn you about these side effects in advance. Finally, herbal products are far more likely than prescription drugs to contain adulterants—drugs or other chemicals that aren’t listed on the label, including products like fenfluramine that have been banned because of their dangers.
Be Empowered: Know What You’re Putting Into Your Body
The bottom line is this: When you take an herbal weight loss product, it’s really no different than Alice in Wonderland, who gulped down the liquid in a bottle labeled “Drink Me” without knowing what was inside. She didn’t know if the potion would make her grow to 10 feet tall or shrink down to the size of a doll. Because of the lack of regulation and sloppy disclosure on herbal remedies, you can’t have any better idea of how herbal remedies will affect you than Alice did. If you’re looking for a short cut to weight loss, you’re not alone. But according to Dr. Chan’s research, herbal products can be a dangerous place to look for that short cut.