When a bad bout of bloating rears its head, reaching for a “detox” or laxative tea is a pretty common solution. But while they’re meant to be used as a digestive aid, many people consider the teas as a way to manage weight—and they’re often marketed as such to consumers by influencers, celebs, and companies who make the teas. (Ahem, paging the Kardashians.)
As such, these types of teas have come under fire by experts and celebrities alike for promoting dangerous norms about weight and health to young people. Thanks in no small part to months of activism by The Good Place‘s Jameela Jamil, Facebook and Instagram recently announced that they would no longer show ads for weight loss products (such as detox and laxative teas) to people under 18.
What exactly is the deal with these teas anyways? We asked a few experts to help us break things down.
How do detox and laxative teas work, anyways?
“The main ingredient in most detox teas—like Smooth Move—is senna leaf, which has been used as a medicinal herb for hundreds if not thousands of years,” says Stella Metsovas, CN, a gut health specialist and clinical nutritionist. “Some studies show great efficacy in using it to treat mild constipation.”
Another herb that’s common in detox teas is cascara sagrada, which works similarly to senna, according to holistic nutritionist Carley Mendes, an expert at The Tot. “They can increase transit time of the food you eat, which in turn reduces the amount of nutrients you’re able to absorb,” she explains. But she adds that they can also go too far in the other direction, causing stomach cramps and diarrhea.
These side effects are part of the reason why You Versus Food host Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, is strongly against laxative and detox teas. “They can cause some pretty unpleasant and stinky side effects,” she previously told Well+Good, “such as diarrhea, massive headaches, drastic and dangerous fluid shifts that could lead to bloating and even fainting.”
Registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD gives her thoughts on detox tea in the video below. Check it out:
They should only be consumed sparingly—if at all
According to Mendes and Metsovas, detox teas should only be used for the occasional stomachache. “If you use it for a longer period of time, your bowels can develop a dependence on laxatives for normal function,” Mendes says. (A representative from Yogi Teas, which makes a laxative tea product, agrees, saying they recommend no more than four cups of any of their digestive teas to be sipped in 24 hours, or longer than 10 days of use.)
To that end, these teas are not to be used for weight management. “It only offers a temporary weight loss due to a short-term reduction in water retention,” Mendes says. And again, relying on these products long-term could lead to dangerous side effects and create a dependency.
Metsovas says her main issue with detox teas is that they can discourage people from getting to the root of their digestive problems. “You shouldn’t rely on these teas as a solution,” she says. “For example, people who are more prone to constipation could have an issue with the underproduction of hydrochloric acid, a necessary stomach acid that helps digest proteins.”
However, Beckerman doesn’t think detox or laxative teas should be used at all, going so far as to say that they’re “a scam, deceptive, misleading, and harmful” and that they are “another example of pseudoscientific snake oil.” She adds that some laxative teas have as many as 80 (!) ingredients, including artificial flavorings and too-high amounts of certain vitamins that could lead to additional dangerous side effects.
Beckerman reiterates that there’s no need for detox teas. “Our liver and kidneys help us detox,” she says. If you’re dealing with stomach problems, skip the teas and talk to your doctor, stat.
Originally published September 21, 2017. Updated October 10, 2019.
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