Six Scary Supplements: Prescription or Poison?

FRESNO, Calif.

Toxicologist Amitava Dasgupta says there's something to treat just about everything, but there's a huge misconception about herbal supplements.

"Anything natural is safe. That is a misconception because there are lots of natural products, which are very toxic," Dasgupta, Ph.D., professor of pathology laboratory medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School, told Ivanhoe.

One is Kava Kava. Used as a natural sleep aid, Dasgupta says it can cause irreversible damage.

"Using Kava Kava for a few months can cause significant liver damage including total liver failure," Dasgupta said.

He tells us Germander, used for general health, can also cause liver failure.

"You have to treat natural products as a drug," Dasgupta said.

Pumi Champa took the Ephedra-containing weight loss supplement Ma Huang for just three weeks when she got shocking news.

"I did my routine blood work, and I noticed this really crazy, outrageous result that just didn't seem normal for someone like, as healthy as me," Champa told Ivanhoe.

Her doctor said the supplement was damaging her liver and heart.

"He said if I didn't stop right away, I would have been dead," Champa said.

Dasgupta says bitter orange is a toxic herb used for weight loss.

"It has compounds, which are structurally similar to amphetamine, which is a street drug, so it can cause heart damage," Dasgupta said.

He advises to also avoid Chaparral. He says this energizing supplement wreaks havoc on the liver. Yohimbe -- also known as "herbal Viagra" -- can cause heart problems and high blood pressure.

"I think the FDA should regulate those products the way they regulate western drugs. Can you buy oxycodone in a pharmacy without a prescription? You cannot," Dasgupta said.

Dasgupta does not think the FDA needs to regulate all herbal supplements -- just the ones that have known health risks. The FDA has issued warnings on several supplements that are known to have toxic effects, but those supplements are readily available in stores and online -- usually with no warning labels attached.

If this story or any other Ivanhoe story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Marsha Hitchcock at

Amitava Dasgupta, PhD
UT Health Science Center at Houston

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