ADVERTISEMENT

Dietary aids blamed for rising share of liver injuries

  • Article by: Anahad O'Connor
  • New York Times
  • December 21, 2013 - 6:45 PM

When Christopher Herrera, 17, walked into the emergency room at Texas Children’s Hospital one morning last year, his chest, face and eyes were bright yellow — “almost highlighter yellow,” recalled Dr. Shreena S. Patel, the pediatric resident who treated him.

Christopher, a high school student from Katy, Texas, suffered severe liver damage after using a concentrated green tea extract that he had bought at a nutrition store as a “fat burning” supplement. The damage was so extensive that he was put on the waiting list for a liver transplant.

“It was terrifying,” he said in an interview. “They kept telling me they had the best ­surgeons, and they were trying to comfort me. But they were saying that I needed a new liver and that my body could reject it.”

New data suggests that his is not an isolated case. Dietary supplements account for nearly 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries that turn up in hospitals, up from 7 percent a decade ago, according to an analysis by a national network of liver specialists. The research included only the most severe cases of liver damage referred to a representative group of hospitals around the country, and the investigators said they were ­undercounting the actual number of cases.

While many patients recover once they stop taking the supplements and receive treatment, a few require liver transplants or die because of liver failure. Naive teenagers are not the only consumers at risk, the researchers said. Many are middle-aged women who turn to dietary supplements that promise to burn fat or speed up weight loss.

“It’s really the Wild West,” said Dr. Herbert Bonkovsky, the director of the liver, digestive and metabolic disorders laboratory at Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C. “When people buy these dietary supplements, it’s anybody’s guess as to what they’re getting.”

Although doctors were able to save his liver, Christopher can no longer play sports, spend much time outdoors or exert himself, lest he strain the organ.

Americans spend an estimated $32 billion on dietary supplements every year, attracted by unproven claims that various pills and powders will help them lose weight, build muscle and fight off everything from colds to chronic illnesses. About half of Americans use dietary supplements, and most of them take more than one product at a time.

© 2014 Star Tribune