Dangers of the Instagram Teatox Culture

cup of tea
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The search for the magic weight-loss solution has been around for a long time in many incarnations. One current version is the Instagram “teatox craze,” which is a nutrition and cleansing program that involves drinking special teas that often contain ingredients that sound harmless but are not. These teas, which are heavily marketed on Instagram, are particularly seductive to individuals with eating disorders who may be easily susceptible to their marketing claims and may abuse them.

Instagram is replete with brands of such “slimming," “skinny,” or "detox" teas hawked by Instagram celebrities. The teas claim to offer help with weight loss, fat burning, increased energy, reduced bloating, and detoxification.

There is no published research to support the claims of these teas.

According to one former tea user, “many of the posts include popular Instagram makeup artists, models, and fitness stars posing with their tea -- these are almost always paid sponsorships, especially if they are promoting their own discount code.”

Senna as the Active Ingredient

A common regimen is a diuretic tea in the morning and a laxative tea in the evening. The active ingredient in most of the laxative teas is senna, a powerful herb that stimulates the bowels and causes a laxative effect. As with all laxative use, any weight loss produced from using these teas is usually due to the body fluids lost when senna activates the colon. Once more food is ingested, the weight is typically regained.

Teas Are Unregulated

Because they are herbal teas, they are often perceived as benign. However, like most other dietary supplements, the herbal teas are unregulated and can be dangerous. Side effects from use can include headaches, nausea, abdominal cramping, dizziness, and dehydration. Furthermore, when taken in large doses or longer than recommended, they can have additional adverse effects. According to the US National Institutes of Health, longer use of senna can cause the bowels to stop functioning normally and might cause dependence on laxatives. Chronic abuse may be associated with serious manifestations, including fluid and electrolyte loss, liver and kidney damage, heart disease, and colon damage.

Laxative Abuse

Social media has the ability to potentiate the spread of such remedies, glamorizing them, hyping supposed benefits and omitting the context of the dangers they pose. An article on Fader describes Instagram as “a booming hotbed for snake oil of all kinds. The people I’ve spotted selling tea also promote other dubious products, like waist trainers and designer knockoff shoes. They do this for money, and, for upstart brands, it works.” Said a former teatox user, 

“The teas certainly mean well, but like I said, it's probably the first taste of laxative use for many women trying to ‘lose weight.’ [It is a] slippery slope, and I often wonder how many of these sponsors actually use the teas. It's very easy to develop an emotional/psychological dependence on these ‘teatoxes,’ especially if you're prone to disordered eating. While instructions may say to use the cleanse tea 'every other night' and to steep it for only a particular amount of time, the seductive feeling of a 'flat stomach' in the morning can drive you to ignore those instructions and use it nightly with a stronger tea. What's more, I had periods where I felt I couldn't go on a trip or attend a big event unless I used the cleanse tea beforehand. It became an anxiety reliever, even though it was making me feel sick. I didn't feel I was at my ‘best’ unless I used a teatox to drop as much water and physical weight as I could.” 

Laxative abuse among the general population occurs in four percent of the general population. The percentage of patients with bulimia nervosa who report laxative abuse ranges from 18% to 75%. Research shows that individuals with anorexia nervosa, binge-eating/purging type, and other specified feeding and eating disorder also often abuse laxatives. Use of teatox is merely laxative abuse by another name.

If you feel like you are "addicted" or abusing similar teas, or if you are interested in weight loss, it's best to speak to your healthcare professional.

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