The removal of what we consider to be toxins from our bodies has been a collective habit for thousands of years. Some historic “detox” practices include bloodletting, enemas, sweat lodges, fasting, and drinking detoxification teas. These practices were even used as medical treatments up until the early 20th century and still remain as common personal practices today.
Today, drinking detox teas has become a popular practice among many, including celebrities like Kendall and Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian-West — who has also received backlash for her endorsement of Flat Tummy Co.’s appetite-suppressing lollipops — and Khloe Kardashian. Even Beyoncé herself has followed such trends as the “Lemonade Diet” (a.k.a. the “Master Cleanse”) — whose main ingredients are water, fresh lemon juice, and maple syrup, and requires you to drink the concoction eight times a day — back in 2006 to lose weight for her role in Dreamgirls.
Like all dietary supplements, the ingredients in detox teas are not regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and according to Health Canada, the sale of some popular brands — such as Flat Tummy Tea, TEATOX, and FitTea — is not allowed in Canada because the products are not properly licensed here.
CBC spoke with Health Canada spokesperson, Maryse Durette, who stated that now some teas and other detox weight loss products have been found to contain dangerous drugs and chemicals that are not advertised on the packaging.
“Since those products are not registered as (natural health products) … they should not be on the market in Canada,” said Durette.
For example, senna, which is a very strong non-prescription laxative approved by the FDA, is the most common ingredient in detox teas. According to an article published in 2016 by Harvard Health Publishing, because senna is so intense, it can irritate the stomach lining and result in cramps and diarrhea, which can cause dehydration, loss in the balance of electrolytes in the body, and, in turn, lead to severe heart problems.
According to the Canadian Natural and Non-prescription Health Products Directorate (NNHPD) — formerly The Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) — any products sold in Canada that make a health claim must be registered and licensed as a natural health product. Even if the product does not list explicit health claims, the implicit meaning in its name can be enough to require a natural health product classification.
Detox tea side effects
Some teas that claim to detox are simply harmless mixes of tea leaves no different than regular teas. On the UK medical site, Net Doctor, an article published by Sophie Goddard and medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson, it’s stated that other teas can contain additional ingredients that could harm your health. Such ingredients may include strong herbs, like senna; other laxatives; high levels of caffeine; medications; or illegal chemicals like ephedra which is an FDA-banned natural stimulant promoted for weight loss.
While these teas contain chemicals meant to “speed” you up, as stated by Harvard Health Publishing in a 2004 article, these chemicals, such as ephedra, can cause dangerous problems, like heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and death.
In one high-profile case in 2014, FDA laboratory analysis found the antidepressant drug fluoxetine (Prozac) inside a Japanese detox tea called Toxin Discharged TeaTrusted Source. This drug can cause serious and life-threatening side effects, especially when it is taken with other medications.
Do detox teas help you lose weight?
Generally, teas are a healthy beverage. Green tea, according to a journal published by the peer-reviewed medical journal Advances in Nutrition, is believed to be especially healthy and has chemicals that can enhance weight loss. The journal explains that these chemicals are called catechins and appear to increase the amount of fat burned during exercise. However, it is heavily stated by the medical journal that more research is needed to fully understand the effects green tea has in relation to weight loss.
As for detox teas, there are no clinical studies proving they’re a good tool for weight loss. Most are sold with instructions for diet and exercise during what could be a “cleansing” period of a week or more and may recommend healthy eating or eating very little. Companies selling detox teas and other products often recommend vigorous exercise, which they claim may help expel toxins from the body. FitTea’s website, for example, recommends exercising regularly three to five times per week while drinking one cup of their tea a day.
Eating healthier or eating less — in addition to more exercise — may result in weight loss. In other words, losing weight while drinking detox teas may not be a result of the tea, but because you’re reducing your caloric intake and increasing your caloric output.
What’s more, detox teas often contain high levels of caffeine. While caffeine is found naturally in most teas, high levels of caffeine may mildly act as a diuretic and trigger excess urination and bowel movements, according to Katherine Zeratsky, R.D.N., a licensed dietitian of the Mayo Clinic. So really, they can make you lose what’s known as “water weight.”
One person who has no fear of vocalizing her opinion on these products is The Good Place actress, Jameela Jamil. Known for advocating for shutting down the notion of detox teas, Jamil has called out and continues to call out, the sponsored posts for detox teas and slimming powders posted on social media by Kim Kardashian-West and Khloe Kardashian as well as a few other celebs.
Jamil swears that it is not about the Kardashian-Jenner family specifically, but rather a part of a larger issue. According to Jamil, the Kardashian family fame “gives them responsibility,” and on Jan. 10, 2019, she tweeted,
“I am doing what I do and saying what I say for the mental health of young kids who follow damaging rhetoric and are at risk of internalizing it more than adults. Nobody thinks/cares enough about their mental health. Sending love to everyone.”
The actress has been extremely vocal about having suffered from an eating disorder herself, tweeting for a second time, “People who haven’t suffered with/or understand eating disorders (ED) don’t understand the desperate need we are in to change the conversation around weight and food. Especially media and celebrities… They need to understand how triggering words can be for those suffering with ED.”
A health professional’s take
Detox tea health products not only violate Health Canada’s rules, but their effectiveness remains questionable among health professionals. Doctors, dietitians, and nutritionists have all repeatedly warned that the notion of detoxifying the body is a myth and should not be practised. In an interview with CBC, Vancouver family physician and President of Doctors of B.C., Dr Eric Cadesky, said: “Detoxing is one in a long line of theories that are created to produce fear and feelings of inadequacy in order to drive people’s behaviour, often toward purchasing a product.”
Human livers and kidneys function to remove toxins from our bodies. Cadesky recommends eating fresh and colourful foods and keeping hydrated in order to help these organs function well.
Canadian Living spoke with Joanna Rosenfeld, a naturopath from Qi Integrated Health Vancouver. She says if her patients are looking to reset their dietary habits and address specific health conditions — such as digestive issues, fatigue, acne, or weight gain — she recommends a cleanse, but to be cautious and speak to their health-care practitioner before starting.
“My favourite is a whole-foods cleanse that should be done for a minimum of three weeks. It eliminates processed foods, caffeine, alcohol, and foods that commonly cause sensitivities — such as dairy, wheat, corn, soy, sugar and eggs — and replacing them with a variety of fruit and vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats,” she says.
Rosenfeld says to avoid cleanses that require fasting, replacing whole foods with juice for long periods of time, or severely restricting calories, which can result in malnutrition and disrupt the metabolic processes.
Despite the fact that these teas cannot be sold in-stores here in Canada, they can still be purchased online. This availability means that, no matter what Health Canada says, those who want the teas don’t even have to leave their home to get them.
One suggestion from Rosenfeld is to avoid teas and other products sold for “detox” or weight loss purposes. If you do feel the need to “detox” or, as Rosenfeld puts it, “reset” your body, speak with your doctor beforehand and work on a plan that eliminates known irritants and replacing them with healthy alternatives. As for weight loss, again, it is always best to ask your doctor on the most effective ways that safely benefit your body.
In the end, the best way to stay healthy and improve your physical and mental health is to stick to a balanced diet, get plenty of exercises, drink lots of water, and get enough sleep every night.