By: Michela Reinink
Thanks in part to many celebrities, including the likes of Khloe Kardashian, Cardi B, and Iggy Azalea, promoting weight-loss detox teas to their fans in sponsored posts on Instagram, the use of laxatives as a weight loss method is becoming increasingly normalized. Now part of everyday wellness, companies that sell these detox teas package their products nicely, using words such as “cleanse”, all whilst minimizing the reality of the products. The truth is that laxatives cause bowels to empty and frequent urination. Despite some backlash, notably from Jameela Jamil, “feminist-in-training”, these products are continuously promoted for their tummy-flattening results. However, research shows that their effects on long-term health are highly questionable.
Laxatives are commonly used as a part of disordered eating to such a degree that the UK government ordered a review by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency to determine whether or not tighter restrictions are needed on the sale of these products (BBC: Health, 2018). Professor Stephen Powers, NHS medical director said, 'Highly influential celebrities are letting down the very people who look up to them by peddling products which are at best ineffective and at worst harmful,' (Ives, 2019). In Manhattan, councilman Mark Levine is pushing the health department to ban the sale of flat-tummy teas and other products, such as weight loss lollipops (Pazmino, 2019). So how and why are these laxative detox teas harmful to health?
One of the ingredients used in these weight-loss products is senna, an FDA-approved, over-the-counter laxative (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2019) that can be used for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and anal fissures, or to prepare for colonoscopies. However, the U.S. National Library of Medicine warns that it is possibly unsafe to use senna in high-doses and/or over an extended period of time. Long-term use can result in heart function disorders, muscle weakness, liver damage, and colon weakness (U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2019). It can also cause dependence on laxatives, wherein bowels cease to function normally. This is a benefit to weight-loss brands, as dependent customers are returning customers.
According to an evidence review of detox diets published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, there is minimal clinical evidence to support the use of such diets (Klein and Kiat, 2014). Clinical studies that have been funded by private commercial companies have been shown to contain flawed methodologies and small sample sizes. Additionally, there have been no randomized controlled trials conducted to determine the effectiveness of commercial detox diets in humans (Klein and Kiat, 2014). Therefore, there is insufficient evidence to properly determine the effectiveness of senna for weight loss purposes.
When it comes to human health, if it seems too good to be true, it usually is. With weight loss quick-fixes, water weight is usually purged first, followed by muscle mass, giving the impression of immediate results. However, experts agree that this is not sustainable, and that for long-term weight loss, there should be a focus on lowering body fat percentage; something that detox teas cannot help to achieve.
The area of laxative detox weight loss products deserves an increase in attention from the scientific community, to ensure that consumers have access to reliable information and can make well-informed decisions surrounding their health. More than just warnings about the potential dangers of these celebrity-endorsed treatments, there is a need for hard data and peer-reviewed experiments. People should turn to experts to answer questions about their health, and refrain from taking advice from celebrities who are being paid to promote a certain product.
BBC: Health. (2018). Laxative sales may be restricted under government review. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-45624471
Ives, L. (2019). Celebrity ads for diet aids should be banned, says top doctor. BBC: Health. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-47090374
Klein, A. V. and H. Kiat. (2014). Detox diets for toxin elimination and weight management: a critical review of the evidence. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics.
Pazmino, G. (2019). Council legislation takes aim at detox tea industry backed by celebrities. Spectrum News. Retrieved from: https://www.ny1.com/nyc/all-boroughs/politics/2019/04/10/council-legislation-takes-aim-at-detox-tea-industry-backed-by-celebrities-
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2019). Senna. Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/natural/652.html