A leading liver transplant surgeon has warned Australians of the dangers of supplements, citing cases of liver failure caused by popular products such as Valerian and green tea extract.
In an interview with 60 Minutes reporter Liz Hayes, Dr Paul Clark said he has seen several patients suffering liver failure and liver injury, with herbal medications the probable cause.
“We commonly see people on herbal medications who come in with liver failure and liver injury,” Dr Clark told Hayes.
“It worries me that we have these time bombs out there ticking, that people feel these things are harmless.”
Every year in Australia alone, up to 12 Australians receive liver transplants because of acute reactions to a variety of herbs and supplements.
But herbal supplements, most of which are available without prescription on the shelves at supermarkets, chemists and health food stores, are not “harmless” – and doctors warn they could be deadly.
Merrill Gemmell had been taking Valerian – a natural, non-prescription supplement to help her sleep – for 18 months. Then she suffered an acute liver injury.
“I was told that I was going into liver failure, and that they were going to talk to the transplant team,” Gemmell told Hayes.
“I was petrified. I thought I was going to die.”
When Dr Paul Clark ran tests on her liver, he found that one in three of Merrill’s liver cells had died.
“In my opinion [Valerian] is the most likely cause for her injury,” Dr Clark said.
“We know there’s data that suggests Valerian can cause liver injury, and in that setting we had no other candidates that we could implicate.”
But Dr Lesley Braun, a pharmacist heading research at Blackmores, said Merrill Gemmell’s liver injury is the first adverse reaction she’s heard of from a Blackmore’s Valerian product.
“It’s very unfortunate that anyone has a bad reaction to any medicine but I think we find very difficult to understand is in fact the link,” Dr Braun told Hayes.
However, scientific papers from around the world do show multiple reports of liver injury associated with Valerian.
Green tea extract has also been identified as an ingredient that can cause serious harm. Green tea extract is popular in protein shakes and weight loss products.
But exposing your liver to a high concentration of green tea – as many supplement products do – is a potential recipe for liver failure.
In 2014, Matthew Whitby consumed just five protein shakes that contained green tea extract. But when he quickly became ill, doctors told him the shocking news that he required a liver transplant.
“They said I had two weeks, tops, to live,” Whitby told Hayes.
“They said green tea was the most probable cause according to the tests that they’d done.”
The manufacturers of these protein shakes, Body Science International, has told 60 Minutes that the product taken by liver transplant recipient Matthew Whitby, Hydroxy Burn Elite product, was discontinued in June 2015.
The company has stated that the illness suffered by Matthew Whitby was a highly unusual occurrence and they have not received a single other adverse report from the discontinued Hydroxy Burn Elite product.
While most Australians won’t experience adverse effects from supplements, doctors warn that the growing popularity of alternative treatments is a cause for concern – as many supplements are not tested or properly regulated.
Aside from the potential harm these supplements can cause, doctors maintain that most herbal supplements and alternative treatments are simply not necessary.
The complementary medicines industry is estimated to be worth more than five billion dollars a year – and it’s thriving thanks to the marketing of quick-fix wellness.
Forensic Pathologist Dr Roger Byard maintains that supplements are largely useless to the average Australian.
“If you’ve got a healthy diet, where’s the evidence that you need to spend squillions of dollars on vitamins?” Dr Byard said.
“It’s extraordinary when you go into pharmacies and you see this array of material that you can buy and where’s the evidence for it? People just pouring money into these companies and not getting much out of it.”
Dr Byard and his research partner Dr Ian Musgrave want changes made in the industry, starting with more evidence of supplements effects and better regulation.
“We need to treat herbal medicines like other medicines. I think that we need some way of making the manufacturers prove these substances are okay.”
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