A few weeks ago, a patient came to me complaining of nausea, muscle weakness and fatigue. Her urine was tea-colored despite drinking loads of water. A middle-aged woman, she seemed worried she had cancer or some deadly disease. Her lab tests revealed significant liver dysfunction. But her symptoms were not due to liver cancer, hepatitis or other disease. It turned out she had liver toxicity from a green tea supplement that she’d heard was a “natural” way to lose weight.
When she stopped taking the supplement at my suggestion, her liver tests gradually normalized and she felt better over the course of a few weeks
I’ve seen the green tea issue in patients before and often witness the real-life pitfalls of eschewing traditional medicine, science and facts in favor of supplements, herbs and cleanses in the name of “natural” healing.
In an effort to be healthy, patients can easily become ensnared in the potential dangers of alternative medicine or homeopathy.
Let’s be clear: Nature has a lot to offer patients.
The Greek physician Hippocrates is said to have reported on the use of St. Johnswort, a flowering plant, for mood disturbances in the 5th century B.C. Digoxin, a well-studied medicine used to treat heart failure, is derived from the foxglove plant. Parkinson’s patients are often commonly treated with the medication L-dopa, which comes from the plant Mucuna pruriens. Moreover, research repeatedly shows that consuming fruits and vegetables, getting adequate sleep and regular exercise, and spending time outdoors have myriad health benefits.
But nature isn’t always so well-intended.
Spoiler alert: Arsenic, cyanide, asbestos and snake venom derive from nature. Refined sugar, a naturally occurring substance and one that lives in most Americans’ pantries, is in large part responsible for our country’s obesity epidemic. Simply because a substance comes from nature does not mean it is good for us.
An important key to health is using nature appropriately.
And in the case of my patient, she was able to lose weight when we made a clear plan to alter her basic human behaviors. Before she started taking the green tea extract, she was skipping breakfast, drinking the equivalent of two Venti coffees before noon, eating takeout meals for lunch, washing down her late-night dinner with two glasses of wine, sleeping restlessly, and spending too much time sitting and indoors.
Green tea extract was never going to be the quick fix that she — and other patients I have seen — had hoped. It may be attractive as a natural cure for extra body fat, but this promise has not been shown in any studies, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health at the National Institutes of Health. The key to helping my patient was pretty basic: looking at her lifestyle, her stress, and creating some structure and accountability for important lifestyle changes.
While she wasn’t able to eat like Gwyneth Paltrow would recommend (who can eat Pinterest-perfect meals like that as a mere mortal?), my patient took my advice to heart that she begin eating breakfast, packing healthy leftovers for lunch at work, cutting back the wine to weekends only, and getting more exercise on weekends.
As a result, she started sleeping better and feeling more energetic. Eventually, the weight started coming off, too.
Particular patients seem to be more susceptible to the lure of “naturopathic” medicine or homeopathy. Patients who have vague symptoms that do not fit tidily into a box, for example, are often the ones combing the Internet for answers to their health woes and spending hundreds of dollars on unproven and insufficiently regulated supplements and herbs.
According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which included a comprehensive poll on the use of complementary health approaches by Americans, 17.7 percent of American adults had used a dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals in the past year. That number is probably larger now: The total sales of herbal and dietary supplements in the United States were estimated to be more than $8 billion in 2017, the 15th consecutive year of sales growth, according to a market research report. And women were more likely than men to use these products — as well as people with more education.
Scientific data is often not the reason patients are drawn to herbal or “natural” supplements, Harvard School of Public Health researchers said. Of supplements users surveyed in 2001, 72 percent said they would continue using supplements despite a negative government scientific study. Patients reported getting much information about herbs from family, friends, advertisements and the Internet.
My patients often consider herbal remedies to be free of side effects, but many “natural” products can lead to toxicity and can dangerously interact with prescription medications.
Compounding the problem is that herbal and dietary supplements are not subject to the same strict regulatory standards as prescription drugs. On it’s website, NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements says the products “are not required to be reviewed by the FDA for their safety before they are marketed because they are presumed to be safe based on their history of use by humans.”
Last year, another patient came in to see me complaining of fatigue, joint pains and abdominal bloating. She had seen a naturopath for these symptoms, who told her she had “chronic Lyme” disease and gave her multiple rounds of antibiotics and a bag full of daily herbal supplements. She said she didn’t feel any better.
When we met, she told me she was certain she had Lyme disease that wasn’t being adequately treated. In fact, the antibiotics she had been given had only worsened her abdominal issues and caused a new problem: an intestinal infection that causes bad diarrhea.
After 10 days of appropriate antibiotic treatment, her diarrhea was gone but she was back to her tired and achy self. At my recommendation, she stopped the supplements, and her fatigue abated somewhat.
When we discussed her situation further, she revealed to me she suffered from a love-hate relationship with sugar.
Like many of my patients, when she was stressed out she binged on sugar. For most people, ingesting sugar provides a quick hit of the pleasure hormone dopamine, and for some people that rush of dopamine and the accompanying instantaneous boost of energy can become addicting.
The problem is that a high sugar load causes a surge in the hormone insulin, which then results in a sudden drop in blood sugar — which can promote fatigue, weakness and irritability, among other symptoms. If consumed in excess over time, such dietary sugar can cause abdominal distress, bloating and joint aches. This is what was probably causing my patient’s symptoms.
So we made a plan for her to not only cut back on sugar but also fill her diet with healthy stuff to get ahead of hunger and avoid binges. I also recommended she work with a therapist to deal with stress-eating. Her joint aches went away and her energy improved after about two weeks, and she continues to see a therapist for stress-eating issues.
Food — and added support to use it properly — was the fix.
Symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, joint pains and irregular bowel movements are some of the most common complaints I see in my office. They can be challenging for physicians to figure out, largely because they require careful and attentive listening by the doctor.
And since more than 40 percent of patients do not tell their doctors about their use of complementary or alternative medicine (including 25 percent who take supplements and/or herbs), physicians can be bewildered when trying to pin down a root cause for a patient’s complaints. Indeed, these patients are not easily diagnosed after a single lab test — and they are not easily fixed with a supplement.
Occasionally, it takes time with the patient, careful attention to the patient’s story, and asking the right questions to get to the bottom of the problem. Often, the solution is right under our nose.
Nature is indeed wonderful, but it doesn’t always come in a pill.
Lucy McBride is an internist based in the District.