You may have read or heard about the case of a man in 2016 who was given two weeks to live after taking a weight loss supplement .
Sounds harmless enough. Many people embark on a weight loss program using over-the-counter treatments or information they find on the internet, but this story took a decidedly disastrous turn. He experienced acute liver failure and ended up having his liver removed.
It was reportedly due to the green tea extract in a popular weight loss powder that he purchased online. A few weeks after the initial news report, after it was revealed that six Australians had required an organ transplant in the last five years after taking herbal medicines, then-Health Minister Sussan Ley said she would talk to the Therapeutic Goods Administration about herbal supplements.
The reaction to the stories was fascinating. Some commenters asked why the media was focussing on just six cases when there were much larger problems with common medicines like paracetamol, or addictive substances like alcohol and cigarettes, which kills thousands of Australians each year.
My reaction was different.
I am always concerned when I hear about people self-prescribing nutrients or herbal medicines. There is a widely-held view that if it is natural it must be good for you. This is not true.
Herbs contain powerful chemical constituents that play a complex role in the body. Some of them, green tea included, play a direct role in the liver detoxification pathways. A properly-trained herbalist should know that green tea extract can be toxic to the liver. When prescribing herbs, a good herbalist will first assess whether it is the right herb and then take the contraindications into account while considering the dosage range.
Whatever happened to the man in the story, it contains an important lesson. It is never wise to self prescribe over-the-counter herbal and nutritional supplements. Always seek the advice of a healthcare practitioner who has extensively trained in nutrition and herbal medicine.
And, in order to understand whether a certain herb or supplement is suitable, it is important to have a consultation to determine your circumstances. That includes your health history, current health picture and medication use.
It is also very important that you only ever take supplements that are made from quality raw materials and from a manufacturer that is reputable and has strict quality control practices in place during manufacturing. In my own practise I only use products made by Australian practitioner-only producers. Quality and efficacy are the two things I look at first when assessing a product.
Back to the green tea example. I use green tea extract in my clinical practice, however I never use it for weight loss. I mostly use it when treating digestive disorders. Green tea is an excellent, selectively-acting, anti-microbial that eradicates bad bugs, but it is kind to beneficial bacteria in the bowel. It also acts as a prebiotic which feeds beneficial bacteria in the gut and helps to break down biofilm, which pathogenic bacteria use to coat themselves in.
The fact is, most supplements, herbs or medicines can be harmful if misused. If you are considering the use of green tea, consult a trained health practitioner to ensure your personal circumstances are understood before it is prescribed or you take your first dose.