As a nation we Brits love tea for its energising, comforting qualities, and ability to make everything feel better. Despite recent claims that millennials are letting down British tea sales I personally love a good green tea to kick off the day, an earl grey to give me a boost in that post-lunchtime energy slump, and a nice fruity or herbal tea to chill out before bedtime. But what if tea could also help you lose weight, simply by drinking it? Sounds like the dream, right?
Detox teas are the latest weight loss craze taking the health blogosphere by storm – hyped as healthy and natural, they fit perfectly into the 'clean eating' trend, boasting all-natural ingredients like Chinese oolong tea, maté leaves, peppermint, ginger, lemongrass and ginseng. It all sounds pretty virtuous and green, and Instagram is packed full of 'before' and 'after' photos showing impressive transformations from bulging bellies to flat, washboard abs.
And yet doctors and nutritionists are increasingly raising concerns about the effect of one particular ingredient: senna. You might recognise the name from Senokot, the (also natural, plant-based) laxative tablets designed to get things moving again when you're constipated. In detox teas, senna works in almost exactly the same way – by producing a laxative effect. Suddenly a little less appealing? Almost all the brands of 'teatox' we've looked at do mention 'a gentle laxative effect' in their small print, but some very clever online marketing has somehow transformed this pretty unglamorous, poo-based weight loss tool into the diet supplement du jour.
One doctor is so concerned about the long-term impacts of using senna for weight loss that she's started a change.org petition, calling on 'teatox' brand Bootea to remove senna from its ingredients Dr Lauretta Ihonor qualified as a medical doctor at University College London before working as a junior doctor in gastroenterology – so she knows her shit, literally. Although she no longer practices in the NHS, Lauretta now works as a nutrition consultant and healthy eating advocate, advising clients on weight loss and getting fit, while also working to demystify the 'total bullsh*t' diet myths and health food trends that she sees so frequently.
She started the petition after becoming increasingly concerned by the number of clients, particularly young women, who were using detox teas and were 'blissfully unaware of what exactly is in them.' So what are her concerns?
'The main thing is that senna stimulates your bowels, so if you use it on a regular basis then your body effectively stops doing the work for itself. When you stop taking it, you're going to be constipated, and you're going to be forced to keep using laxatives to have a regular bowel motion,' she explains.
'The second problem is dehydration. They contain something called a diuretic, which makes you lose a lot of water – and at the same time you're drinking the laxative, which also makes you lose a lot of water from your colon. As well as water, you lose electrolytes like potassium and sodium, which your heart needs to beat properly and your muscles need to contract properly. If you use it long-term you're putting yourself at risk of an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia,' she adds.
Scary stuff – and it definitely didn't get any less grim when we spoke to young women who'd experienced adverse effects from various different teatox brands. 'The effect was almost instant,' says 28-year-old Roisi, who tried the Slendertox 14-day package after being sent a free sample to review for her blog. 'An hour and a half after drinking it, I was on the toilet – and I was up all night! I didn't sleep.'
Like many of the detox teas on the market, Slendertox contains a daytox tea, to be drunk every morning, and a sleeptox tea containing senna, to be drunk every other night before bed. 'That first night I thought maybe it was just a one-off – like a proper clean-out and then things settle down – but it wasn't like that. The four days I was having it, I was constantly on the toilet, had cramps, and couldn't eat. The night time one also contains valerian, which is like herbal valium, so you're knocking yourself out but also making yourself really need the toilet; I ended up zoned out, half asleep on the toilet all night,' Roisi says.
'I had to take time off work because there are only two toilets in our office and I had to be five feet from the toilet all the time. I stopped on the fourth day because I thought it was stupid. I had lost 5lb, but I felt like shit, so it was clearly not a good way to lose weight. It took about a week for my body to get back to normal. I had cramps, dehydration, lack of appetite, and I had to take Dioralyte because I was irritable and getting headaches. I gained all the weight back again once I got my appetite back, because it was all just water weight,' she adds. 'It was supposed to be all herbal and natural, but it didn't feel natural at all!'
25-year-old Gina had a similarly unpleasant experience with SkinnyMint, after buying it as a quick fix to lose weight before her holiday. 'The morning teas were absolutely fine, but with the bedtime one that you have every other day, no matter how long I brewed it for, it made me incredibly sick,' she says. 'I kept going for a few nights, thinking perhaps I needed to brew it for less time, or try it colder, or earlier before bed, or later after food – but each time I was sick. It was quite quick acting – about half an hour to an hour later, and then I'd be vomiting for 10-20 minutes.'
Before trying SkinnyMint, Gina had previously used Bootea. 'Some of my friends had used it and noticed a difference, so I gave it a go, and I was absolutely fine on that. Occasionally they would give me headaches in the evenings, but when I woke up in the morning they would be gone. I don't know whether that was because of the dehydration. But because I didn't notice any real difference in terms of weight loss with Bootea, that's why I thought I'd try a different brand.' Looking back, she adds: 'I'd much rather eat proper food and exercise rather than look for a quick fix. I think of it now as being no different from taking laxatives every time you eat to make yourself ill.'
Roisi and Gina's experiences of detox teas are at the more extreme end though. Many of the young women we spoke to were far more positive about their experiences. 'I'm currently on my day ten of my second Bootea round and I love it,' says 28-year-old Cher. 'I wouldn't say it's a miracle worker or anything – part of it is that it's a routine that you stay in, and maybe there's a placebo effect because you think "if I have this Bootea and then eat chocolate all day, what's the point?" – so it motivates me that way. I definitely feel a little less bloated too. I have to admit it does get things moving quite a lot!'
In terms of weight loss, Cher adds: 'I don't think I could honestly say I lost any weight that I'd attribute to the tea – it's not so much about the weight but more about how my stomach feels. You feel lighter within yourself, the bloaty podge goes down.' Likewise, 31-year-old Lauren says Skinny Mint made her feel more awake, less bloated, and more regular. 'I thought it was brilliant,' she says, 'I'd definitely do it again.'
So why the dramatic differences in how people's bodies react? 'Everyone varies with drug reactions – even something as benign as paracetamol will affect people differently,' Lauretta explains. 'The daytime teas do have ingredients in that will make you feel energised. There's also a placebo effect – these teas are expensive, almost £40 for 28 days, so when you pay that much money you've invested in yourself and you're less likely to throw it out,' she adds.
Whatever effect 'teatoxing' has on your body, registered dietician and nutritionist Frankie Phillips says detoxing with any food and drink is 'simply not necessary. The body can detox itself effectively using your kidneys, gut, liver, and skin, so any detox is little more than hype.' Her advice is to stick to a balanced diet, plenty of fluid – including normal tea – and physical activity for a more healthy body and weight.
For Lauretta, the petition isn't about banning teatoxes, simply reducing the risks and ensuring young women know what they're buying into. 'People are motivated whether you put senna in or not, so why don't we make it safer? And if they won't remove the senna then it should at least be labelled like a box of senna [tablets] and have warnings on the back,' she says.
'I'm not advocating a nanny state – everyone is allowed to take whatever they want as long as they're going in with their eyes open, but it's good to read your ingredients. There's nothing in there that's magical, that you can't take on your own and at least know you've taken the safe (and cheaper!) version. If it makes you feel good then have a normal peppermint tea, or some green tea with ginger,' Lauretta adds. 'Don't believe the hype!'
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.