Slimming pills can be fatal

Many slimmers don't realise that prescription and over-the-counter slimming pills can be dangerous, and even deadly.

Recently, a Health24 forum user wrote in to say that, while taking a well-known prescription diet pill, she discovered bruises on her legs and was suffering from pain.

She surmised that these were likely to be clots in her legs, but was too scared to return to her doctor because she didn't want to stop taking the pills that were helping her to lose weight. In addition to the bruises, she had a skin rash. But this she said she could live with, as long as she continued to lose weight.

Other forum users have complained that they feel dizzy and have fainting spells, or develop the jitters and insomnia, or undergo a change in personality – all in the name of beauty.

Clearly, this is a recipe for disaster.

Over-the-counter pills
One of the most serious side effects of many slimming pills, particularly over-the-counter products, is addiction. Many self-help slimming pills and drops contain ingredients such as caffeine, guarana extract (another source of caffeine), salicylic acid disguised as white willow bark extract, or pseudo-epinephrine, known as synephrine, citrus aurantium or bitter orange extract.

Caffeine and guarana extract are stimulants that suppress the appetite, increase energy, lift the mood and produce a "high". It's understandable that slimmers will want this kind of stimulated feeling, and easily get hooked. One forum user shocked me the other day when she confided that she had taken one of these mood-altering slimming pills for 15 years.

However, caffeine in any form can cause headaches, nausea, insomnia, restlessness, excitation, tremors and stomach ulcers. Its diuretic effect can also cause dehydration, which can be lethal if it progresses too far.

Salicylic acid, which is also found in aspirin, can be fatal if taken in doses that cause bleeding ulcers. It shouldn't be abused.

Synephrine, or extracts of citrus fruit, will also suppress the appetite, stimulate mood and give you that invincible feeling of a “high”.

But when you think of all the side effects linked to synephrine, such as vomiting, dry mouth, palpitations and irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias, increased blood pressure, angina pain, heart arrest, anxiety, restlessness, inability to concentrate, insomnia, dizziness, fainting, tremors, headaches, irritability and even psychotic states, it really isn't worth it.

Prescription drugs
Prescription drugs can also be fraught with danger. Like any medication, slimming pills can also have negative side effects and may not be suitable for everyone.

A clear warning that prescription slimming pills can be potentially hazardous is that they're classified as Schedule 5 drugs that should only be taken under the supervision of a medical doctor. The reason for this classification is that patients are supposed to report negative side effects to the doctor and seek advice if they start feeling ill or develop serious symptoms.

Two popular prescription slimming pills are Duromine and Reductil. When used with an energy-reduced diet for no more than three months, these products can aid weight loss – but only if the person taking them doesn't develop side effects that interfere with his or her health or normal functioning.

According to MIMS, Duromine is an appetite suppressant, which contains phentermine as its active ingredient. The following side effects can occur: pulmonary hypertension, central nervous system effects including psychotic episodes and hallucinations, cardiovascular symptoms, gastrointestinal disturbances, problems with urination, rash, impotence or changes in libido, facial oedema and blurred vision.

Reductil or sibutramine, which also suppresses the appetite, is associated with the following side effects: chills, cardiovascular effects, gastrointestinal disturbances, central nervous system symptoms and sweating.

Rather safe than sorry
As the forum users report, they're prepared to sacrifice all to lose weight and will put up with scary side effects as long as they can lose those unwanted centimetres.

But let’s face it, if you start developing clots in your legs that can cause damage to your lungs, heart or brain, or if you have turned into a hyperactive zombie who can no longer sleep, then you need to do something about your method of weight loss.

Three safety tips:
1. Read the fine print on the labels of over-the-counter slimming pills to check if they contain caffeine, guarana extract, salicylic acid, white willow bark extract, pseudo-epinephrine, synephrine, citrus aurantium or bitter-orange extract. If they do, don’t buy them. If you do purchase this type of slimming pill because you believe the scam that "if it's natural or herbal, it must be safe and good for me", and you start experiencing side effects, stop right there. Flush those pills down the toilet.

2. If you're under the treatment of a medical doctor for your obesity with prescription slimming pills and you get serious side effects like irregular heartbeats, pain in the chest, clots in your legs or a skin rash, phone your doctor immediately and tell him or her what's happening. Losing weight shouldn't damage your health.

3. Think of safe alternatives. There are thousands of obese people worldwide who have lost weight successfully without having to resort to the hazards of slimming pills. The Biggest Loser SA TV programme was a shining example of what motivated people can achieve.

The three finalists each lost more than 44kg. In fact, John lost 44.7kg, Asanda lost 54.7kg and Sharon, the winner, lost an unbelievable 61.8kg. Use a well-balanced diet and exercise instead of slimming pills, and you'll lose weight even if it takes a bit longer.

Along the way you may even learn better eating and drinking habits, and develop a lifetime commitment to exercise that will not only keep you slim, but improve your general health.

(Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc, June 2009)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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