Unregulated “Detox” Products and Supplements Just Might Be Dangerous Nonsense.

Michael GrossmanDecember 22, 2017 4 minutes

I've written a couple of times about my general distrust of dietary supplements and homeopathic medicine. I know they carry some psychological benefit and I understand not wanting to lean on prescription medications if it can be helped, but supplements and "wellness" products receive almost zero regulation or oversight in the U.S., which I find disconcerting. Whether they (allegedly) contain mystic herbs from the Orient or just sawdust and snake oil, these products--available virtually everywhere-- typically do at best nothing, and at worst considerably more harm than good.

Take "detox" products, for example. Based on the idea that we all feel like crap sometimes and wish we didn't, these products assure consumers that ingesting a weird combination of plant bits will leach the "toxins" out of our systems and leave us feeling on top of the world. Often marketed in the form of teas, it's darn-near universally agreed upon by scientists that they don't really do anything medicinal. Indeed, doctors and scientists warn that there have even been times that the ingredients in these toxins actually cause significant damage to the people who trust their claims.

My temper was triggered about all this when I read a recent article about one such product, the use of which may have had fatal consequences.

"Detox" Tea Possibly Linked to Liver Failure

A recent case report from doctors at Drexel University Hospital in Philadelphia, submitted to a prominent medical journal, outlined the fatal case of a 60-year-old woman whose liver suffered abrupt failure. They claim her death occurred soon after she ingested Yogi brand "DeTox Tea."

According to the report, the woman went to the hospital in 2016 with symptoms of "weakness and lethargy" which she had increasingly felt for about two weeks. Early tests returned normal results, but the doctors noticed the patient's eyes were deeply yellowed from jaundice, a clear sign of liver damage. Tests confirmed that she was suffering rapid deterioration of her liver function.

Tests for a series of related diseases like hepatitis came back negative. The patient also wasn't using any medication aside from blood pressure pills and had no known pre-existing liver problems, though the doctors noted she was obese and drank around three glasses of wine a night for roughly ten years.

Having ruled out internal factors, the doctors began to look at external ones, including the patient's recent use of Yogi DeTox tea. She allegedly stated that she began drinking the tea fourteen days before her symptoms began, ingesting three cups a day as part of a "cleanse"--a term promoted by celebrities and New Age health gurus to describe the detox process. Given the timing of the tea's use and observing the condition of the liver after stopping the cleanse, the doctors came to believe that the detox product was the source of the catastrophic damage. The patient was put on a transplant list, but died two days later. The doctors' working theory was that a substance in the Yogi tea combined with the alcohol she regularly consumed and rapidly destroyed her formerly-healthy liver.

Yogi's instructions recommend consuming their DeTox tea "1 to 3 cups anytime during the day, up to 10 tea bags a day...for up to 30 days." It seems the woman was following directions correctly.

Correlation Isn't Causation.

I can't and won't say that Yogi Tea was the definitive cause of the unnamed patient's death. The report includes some confounders: additional elements that could have contributed to, or even directly caused, a plaintiff's injuries. It doesn't appear that the tea brought down a paragon of healthy living in this instance; per the doctors' account, the patient was obese and a regular if not excessive drinker. It's very possible that these additional factors played a part in her condition. Even the doctors believed that one of the tea's ingredients likely had a negative reaction with the alcohol from her daily wine intake, rapidly deteriorating her liver.

Moreover, this is only a single incident, not a global epidemic. My distaste for this field of products aside, I won't claim that this case means Yogi DeTox tea is necessarily a lethal cocktail for anyone who drinks it.

However, that doesn't necessarily mean the tea had nothing to do with the liver crash. The patient may have been somewhat unhealthy in her habits, but she seems to have been thriving (more or less) prior to her "cleanse." After her death, the doctors looked into the tea's ingredients for further insights about what may have happened. They were able to locate studies that suggested each ingredient allegedly had protective effects on the liver. However, other studies suggested that at least six of those ingredients, including gardenia fruit, skullcap root, and rhubarb root, could have harmful effects. As with many such products, it's unclear what effects--if any--the tea has for those who use it as directed.

Wellness Products Need Better Oversight.

Yogi brand claims that their DeTox tea "supports healthy balance from within." If that sounds like a bunch of nothing wearing a fancy hat, that's because it probably is. The idea of "detoxing" or "cleansing"--flushing your internal works of unspecified impurities and making your organs like new--is essentially non-promissory boilerplate language. Call it alternative medicine, holistic therapy, or homeopathy, but no amount of boiled cloves and ginger is going to expel all the gremlins from our bodies.

For all Yogi's claims of "healthy balance," none of their assertions have been evaluated by the FDA. As it happens, supplements and "detox" products, despite often containing ingredients that are medically active and may interact with with real medicines, are barely regulated at all thanks to some specific wording in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The Vitamin-Mineral Amendment, better known as the Proxmire Amendment, was enacted in 1976 thanks to the efforts of Wisconsin senator William Proxmire. The amendment functionally tied the FDA's hands with respect to evaluating and regulating supplements. It was made literally illegal for the agency to create standards for supplements, classify them as drugs, or regulate their ingredients. Unless the FDA could prove that components in these products were objectively unsafe, they were forbidden from setting any limits on their quantity or combinations.

In sum, it'd be dishonest to say "Yogi Tea killed someone," but it makes sense to say there might be a link between this poor patient's two-week "cleanse" and her acute liver failure. With the FDA rendered toothless in double-checking these products, such problems happen all the time as so-called "natural" remedies and treatments flood supermarket shelves and deceive honest people who are looking for help with what ails them. "Detoxing" and "wellness cleanses" are just buzzwords that are often used by unscrupulous companies to prey on unwell people, and the companies that push such products should be taken to task for not conducting due diligence. Could better product testing have shown at least one of the tea's ingredients' adverse reaction to alcohol? I can't say for sure, but it sure couldn't have hurt. Until the FDA regains the power to oversee these supplements, though, it seems like the best thing is to avoid "detox" products altogether and find better ways to be healthy.