Celebrity-endorsed diet teas (and the ripped abs they allegedly create) are all over social media, but their unintended effects may go way beyond quick weight loss.
Illustration by Julia Kuo
It's tough to scroll through Instagram without coming across a celebrity, fitness blogger, or anyone with a significant following praising a 'detox' tea—usually accompanied by a picture of their toned stomach.
I have to admit, I've been tempted to try them. Who wouldn't want to drink a cup of tea a day and lose weight? Hell, if it involved bog standard English breakfast tea, I would be a size zero by now. But sadly, this is a classic case of how if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. For some women, the so-called 'teatox' may actually have dreaded side effects on their menstrual cycle.
Celebrity-powered endorsements on Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms have catapulted these herbal teas to worldwide audiences. What manufacturers fail to convey in their shinily positive social media posts is that many of the teas—and the associated weight loss—come from drinking senna, a natural laxative.
One of the biggest brands is Bootea, a UK based detox tea that has a staggering social media presence thanks, in part, to its army of celebrity endorsers. Search the term Bootea on Instagram and you'll get over 100,000 posts—that's a lot of selfies with tea bags and tight abs.
It claims on its website to "kickstart your healthy lifestyle" and has become a common feature on high profile social media accounts. Reality TV stars are usually the most common fans; take Danielle Jonas, the wife of Kevin Jonas and the star of the E! show Married to Jonas.
In November, she shared an Instagram selfie with her one milion followers of herself in a crop top, posing with her puppy and a Bootea bottle. The caption reads: "Feeling strong and fit thanks to drinking my favorite #BooTea @booteauk bootea.com."
When you compare quick fixes like drinking a cup of herbal tea to a long session sweating it out at the gym, it's easy to see why detox teas are so attractive. Other brands like SkinnyMe Tea from Melbourne and Florida-based TeamMi also deliver to customers around the world. They make similar claims to Bootea—specifically, drinking their tea will help improve your health, stay energized, and 'feel better from the inside out.'
On Booteas' Instagram account for Irish customers, it says, "Get the figure you want with an intense mix of natural ingredients." And "intense" is one way of putting it.
Jessica Kilner*, a 30 year old who lives in Southampton, UK, says she started drinking BooTea ahead of her wedding, with the aim of losing weight. She drank the tea for a total of nine weeks, but it wasn't until after her wedding that she noticed anything was wrong.
It was so scary. It was the most excruciating pain. I think it was from the tea too.
"I had a period in mid-August," she tells Broadly. "My periods are like clockwork so it was due in mid-September, about four days after my wedding, but it didn't appear. Of course, I was concerned. I was also on a diet but not a crazy one and working out two times a week. Nothing more than normal."
Kilner, worried about the disruption to her menstrual cycle, booked an appointment to see her doctor. Her period arrived that morning—nearly two months late. She also experienced other side effects. "I felt a pain in my side, it was the middle of the night so it woke me up. It was so scary. It was the most excruciating pain. I think it was from the tea too. Luckily it went after about an hour."
Her sister, Kylie Marsh*, 31, a promotion manager who lives in London also drank the tea. As one of Kilner's bridesmaids, she also wanted to lose some weight ahead of the celebration. Marsh drank the tea for a month in total. "I realized my period was late in mid-September," she said. "In total, it was three weeks late. I felt really worried and stopped drinking the tea." She too had been on a diet and exercising, but nothing more than normal.
Neither was not on birth control. Worried that they had become pregnant, they both did a number of pregnancy tests—all came back negative.
The sisters are not alone in reporting a disruption to their menstrual cycle—a number of blogs and reviews have appeared online in recent months claiming the same thing.
Jennifer, a 22-year-old fitness blogger from Luxembourg, came across Bootea after seeing it on her Instagram feed. She ordered a 14 day detox box, with the aim of dropping a few pounds.
"I couldn't see any negative feedback on their website, so I ordered a package and download the diet plan," she said on her blog. "After two weeks I had a super flat belly and lost four kilos, but not because of the teatox but because I couldn't eat anything anymore. I constantly had bellyaches and diarrhoea. I didn't feel good at all in addition to the bellyaches. I also had many headaches and my whole body felt bad.
"But worst of all, my menstrual cycle became totally irregular. I mean how can a tea influence your menstrual cycle?"
Jennifer stopped drinking the tea after a few days, but she felt so compelled to share her story that she blogged about it. Bootea did not respond to requests for comment.
Detox teas essentially work as laxatives, falsely creating a sense of health and well-being through 'purging.'
So what's actually in these teas? The ingredients are herbal based and a detox kit costs around $30 for a 14-day supply. They usually come with two types of tea and you're instructed to drink one in the morning—usually referred to as the daytime cleanse or morning detox—and then the 'bedtime,' 'colon cleanse,' or 'evening' tea, every second night before bed.
The second tea usually contains a small amount of senna—an FDA-approved non-prescription natural laxative—which can have some unpleasant side effects, if misused.
The manufacturers suggest drinking either a 14 day or 28 day detox plan, but health guidelines suggest that laxatives, even natural ones, should not be taken for more than two weeks, as long-term use can cause the bowels to stop functioning normally or a dependency on laxatives can develop. The also advise that laxatives should only be used for constipation, not to aid weight loss.
According to reports, the effects and side effects vary depending on the person and the amount of tea that is ingested. This includes the amount of weight that may or may not be lost—the manufacturers are very upfront about this. Each brand warns customers that weight loss will vary from person to person. Common symptoms usually include cramping and increased frequency of visiting the bathroom.
The manufacturers also claim that other undesirable side effects, such as diarrhea and severe cramping, should not occur. If they do, they warn, the person should stop drinking the tea and seek medical advice.
Away from their pretty packaging and alluring social media images the brands also warn that some teas may cause a laxative effect and that any subsequent side effects may be associated with this.
Click through to its disclaimer on the SkinnyMe Tea website and it says when drinking the evening cleanse that users should "...ensure you have ready access to a toilet during the day until you know how your body reacts to the tea." Nice.
So what are they doing to your body? "Detox teas essentially work as laxatives, falsely creating a sense of health and well-being through 'purging,'" says Dr Ian Campbell, one of the UK's most respected experts in weight loss management and medical advisor for Nutratech.
What effects they do have are largely through diarrhoea and malabsorption of nutrients.
"They make claims of being able to help with weight loss, and although their impact is minimal, there will always be 'outliers,' users who lose an exceptional amount of weight; but the average weight loss, in what small clinical studies there are, makes their claim to be a weight loss treatment to be not credible. What effects they do have are largely through diarrhoea and malabsorption of nutrients."
Bootea, in particular, came under fire earlier this year after a number of women claimed they had got pregnant—nicknaming them 'Bootea babies'—while drinking the tea, because it can reduce the effectiveness of birth control. The women accused the brand of not being clear enough about this as a side effect during the purchasing process.
All the teas I've mentioned in this piece do state somewhere on their websites that drinking the tea could reduce the accuracy of the contraceptive pill. But how does drinking a cup of herbal tea stop your pill from working?
"This is due to the laxative effect causing the contraceptive pill to be excreted before it has become absorbed into the blood stream, in no different way to that which occurs during a bout of gastroenteritis," Dr Ian Campbell tells Broadly. "Missed-pills cause a decrease in blood levels of oestrogen and progesterone and therefore become ineffective. Pregnancy becomes an immediate risk."
When I spoke to the FDA, they told me that herbal supplements do not have any legal obligation to warn customers about side effects. On the other end of the scale—the side effect of intense dieting and weight loss that is rarely discussed is disruption the menstrual cycle—including stopping, delaying and changing in the cycle of periods.
We can never say if drinking the tea is why Kilner, Marsh, and Jennifer noticed a difference in their menstrual cycle. But while Bootea and TeaMi did not respond to requests for comment, SkinnyMe Tea did get back to Broadly.
"The Evening Cleanse component of the Teatox is a listed product on the Australian Register of Theraputic Goods, if taken according to the instructions on our packaging is safe," a spokesperson said. "There is a lot of competitors around us that bring down our reputation by doing the wrong thing." The company also states that they've never had a customer report that their periods have been disrupted when drinking the tea.
If an individual loses a lot of weight quickly, this can cause a disruption of normal female hormones, and in effect shut down the reproductive cycle.
Menstrual cycles can be affected by many factors including, weight loss, weight gain, stress, or ill health. There is no scientific evidence that drinking a tea with laxatives is the cause of a disruption to the menstrual cycle. But with weight loss being the main 'benefit' of drinking the tea, it's something that should be discussed.
"If an individual loses a lot of weight quickly, this can cause a disruption of normal female hormones, and in effect shut down the reproductive cycle," Dr Campbell tells Broadly. "No ovulation; no periods. It's not in itself harmful, but perhaps is indicative of the less than ideal effect of 'detox-teas' per se."
Despite shipping worldwide products needs to adhere to the safety rules and regulations in the country they are manufactured in. In the US herbal supplements do not need to be approved for safety or effectiveness by the FDA, unlike drug products.
By law, the manufacturer itself is responsible for ensuring that its dietary supplement products are safe before they are marketed.
And what about the claim that these teas can aid weight loss? "Laxatives may result in weight loss but it will not be from fat loss," Jo Travers, a registered dietician, who runs LondonNutritionist.co.uk, tells Broadly.
"Laxatives work on the colon or large intestine and most nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine so any food eaten is likely to have already been absorbed by the time it gets to the colon, which is mainly concerned with absorption of water and electrolytes.
"What is lost is weight from water, meaning that you are really just dehydrating yourself. This will put a strain on internal organs including the brain (which is 20 percent water) leading to headaches, fatigue and poor concentration."
Not every customer who drinks the tea reports one or all of these symptoms; in fact there are plenty of positive reviews. It's just that there's a bad taste in my mouth, and it's not the tea.