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Doctors warn that New Year's detox therapies can be life-threatening

Unless you’re a heroin addict or at risk of alcohol poisoning, you probably don’t need a "detox." Yet we’re now in the season when many of us have the itch to "cleanse" our systems after weeks of holiday overindulgence. And so we buy diet books, supplements, and detox kits in the hopes of doing our bodies a favor.

But a new case report in the journal BMJ Case Reports argues that these over-the-counter cleansing cocktails could be deadly.

In the report, published today, doctors from the Milton Keynes Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in Eaglestone, England detail the story of a 47-year-old woman who collapsed with seizures and confusion. She was still uncontrollably grinding her teeth when she showed up at their hospital last year, and the doctors immediately took a scan of her head and checked her blood and fluid levels to figure out what was going on. They found out that the woman had a case of severe, life-threatening hyponatremia (or low sodium levels in her blood).

When the doctors started to dig around about the potential causes of the woman’s medical complications, they learned that she had been detoxing over the New Year period by drinking a lot of fluids and teas and taking a cocktail of herbal medicines, including valerian root, a supplement of dubious efficacy that’s often marketed as a sleep and anxiety aid.

At first, the doctors thought her hyponatremia — which caused the seizures and confusion — was brought on by drinking too much liquid. But then they found a 2013 study implicating valerian root in a similar case involving a 48-year-old man.

"In both these patients, the fluid intake did not seem to be excessive enough to cause such a low sodium level acutely," the doctors wrote, since a healthy person would typically need to drink more than 10 liters per day to experience the side effects.

So their working hypothesis is that valerian root may bring on hyponatremia, even in patients who don’t drink so much fluid, and called for more investigation of the link.

"Valerian root has now been suspected in two cases associated with severe, life-threatening hyponatraemia and healthcare professionals should be vigilant to this," they warned. "Patients should be advised of the potential detriment done to their health of undertaking a New Year ‘detox’ especially if it involves consuming excessive amounts of fluid or alternative remedies."

Over-the-counter alternative detox remedies have actually long been considered marketing shams that are unsupported by science. And herbal supplements are far from harmless.

Even though Americans spend more than $30 billion on supplements each year, these pills are barely regulated. Supplement makers don't need to prove their products are safe or even effective before putting them on store shelves. And while supplements are supposed to be accurately labeled, a Vox review of government databases, court documents, and scientific studies uncovered more than 850 products that contained illegal and/or hidden ingredients — including banned drugs, pharmaceuticals like antidepressants, and other synthetic chemicals that have never been tested on humans.

We found examples of weight loss supplements spiked with cancer-causing drugs that had been pulled from the US market, brain enhancers laced with chemicals that have never been approved for sale in the US, and more than 100 products contained DMAA, a drug that's been banned in the US, UK, and several other countries because it is linked to strokes, heart failure, and sudden death.

After a period of overindulgence, there are a few things that can boost your immediate sense of well-being, and maybe even improve your long-term health outcomes: Get a good night's sleep, limit your alcohol intake, do some exercise, and eat a balanced diet. Unfortunately, these things don't come in a quick pill, and usually require more discipline and commitment than a week-long detox.

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