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Diet Pill Abuse, Addiction, And Treatment Options

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

April 29, 2019

Diet pills is a general term used to describe both over-the-counter and prescription medications that are used to help with weight loss and control. These pills have a high risk for addiction and alarming side effects.

Diet Pills Explained

There are a number of pills that are advertised to help people lose weight. They are often marketed as diet pills, weight loss supplements, fat-burning pills, or some other type of weight reduction.

The majority of diet pills work by suppressing appetite, preventing fat absorption, or increase metabolism. Other pills reduce cravings, slow fat production in the body, increase bowel function, or make a person feel full, so they eat less.

Over-the-counter (OTC) weight loss supplements are usually not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means they do not have to follow government guidelines and the ingredients are not regulated. Some manufacturers add ingredients that are toxic or addictive at high doses.

Prescription diet pills are FDA regulated and most are classified as Schedule III or IV narcotics by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). These medications are tracked and monitored for safety and appropriateness. They also have been found to be potentially addictive, especially when they are abused, or taken in a way that is not recommended

Diet Pill Dangers

Diet pills are not a permanent solution to weight loss. These medications and supplements are not intended for long term use, and when they are abused the results can be very damaging.

The problems associated with diet pills varies depending on the type of diet pill, but include digestive system problems, dehydration, damage to the heart and cardiovascular system, renal failure, chronic constipation or diarrhea, electrolyte disorders, dependence, addiction, and death due to overdose.

Because many OTC diet supplements are not held to the same standard as prescription medications manufacturers can choose to include herbal substances that are toxic. Even more concerning is the fact that the manufacturer can sell these supplements without disclosing all the ingredients.

According to the FDA, many over the counter weight loss supplements contain ‘hidden ingredients’. In a list of studies dating back to 2011, the FDA has been testing ingredients of these pills, and disclosing hidden ingredients in public statements. Over 100 different supplements were reported to be unsafe for consumption.

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As recent as January 28th, 2019, FDA lab analysis found that GoLean Detox had both sibutramine and phenolphthalein in the pills, and neither were listed on the label. Both of these ingredients are not approved due to severe health (cardiovascular and renal) issues and potential of death.

Sibutramine has not been available in the US since 2010, as it can cause heart problems, stroke, and be fatal when mixed with other medications. Phenolphthalein may increase risk of cancer, and is not approved for use in the US.

Prescription diet pills can also be dangerous when taken for too long, or at higher doses than prescribed. They can cause cardiovascular problems (high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke), decrease liver and kidney function, and cause significant impairment to the gastrointestinal system.

Diet Pill Abuse

Taking diet pills in any way that is not recommended is considered substance abuse. This includes taking diet pills in higher doses or for longer than suggested, crushing and snorting the pills, or taking them for some other reason besides weight loss.

People may abuse diet pills for a number of reasons. They may believe that higher doses may yield faster weight loss results, or they may feel as though they cannot maintain their weight without continued use of the pills.

Another reason a person may abuse diet pills is because they like the way they feel when taking them. At high doses, some diet pills cause euphoria and increased well-being. A person might continue to abuse the medication in an attempt to continue these ‘good feelings’.

Whatever the reason, abusing diet pills does not come without consequence. A number of side effects may occur, including:

  • hallucinations
  • edema (swelling of legs and feet)
  • insomnia
  • vomiting
  • chest pain
  • jaundice (yellowing of skin or whites of eyes)
  • rash
  • changes in urine or stool

Abusing diet pills of any kind can also result in fluctuations in weight over short periods of time, as the person shifts between periods of diet pill abuse and non-use. Diet pill abuse can lead to dependence and addiction.

Diet Pill Addiction

Addiction to diet pills may often be the result of an underlying mental health condition, such as anorexia or bulimia. Abusing diet pills can sometimes give the person control over an otherwise uncontrollable disorder. Over time, the person develops a dependence to the pills, needing the diet pills to feel normal.

Addiction is more than just dependence, however, and a person struggling with diet pill addiction will usually struggle to control the amount of diet pills they take. They may also spend a lot of time and money on diet pills, avoiding responsibilities like school and family as well.

Continuing to take diet pills even though they are aware of the negative health and life consequences is another sign of a diet pill addiction. A person is also likely to experience withdrawal if they attempt to stop taking diet pills once they have developed an addiction.

List Of Popular Diet Pills

Whether an OTC weight loss supplement or prescription diet pill, there are several well-known options that may be abused. OTC supplements are more readily available, and consumption is not monitored. Prescription diet pills have increased risk for addiction due to how they affect dopamine in the brain, which is associated with addiction.

Over-The-Counter Diet Pills

OTC supplements are constantly changing, and new supplements are becoming available. Some of the current most popular OTC weight loss supplements include:

  • Hydroxycut
  • Alli (the only FDA approved OTC weight loss pill)
  • Meratrim
  • Cellucor
  • SkinnyFit
  • Apidren
  • MyoShred
  • Obesitrol

Many OTC diet supplements contain garcinia cambogia extract, caffeine, green coffee bean extract, glucomannan, green tea extract, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), forskolin, or synephrine. Research often shows inconsistent weight loss results for these supplements.

Prescription Diet Pills

Weight loss pills that are only available by prescription include:

  • Xenical (orlistat)
  • Belviq (lorcaserin)
  • Qsymia (phentermine topiramate)
  • Contrave (naltrexone bupropion)
  • Saxenda (liraglutide)

There are also medications that are considered ‘off-label’ treatment for weight loss, such as phendimetrazine, diethylpropion, phentermine, and benzphetamine.

Diet Pill Withdrawal

When a person struggling with diet pill addiction attempts to stop taking diet pills, they are likely to experience some uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. This is a result of the body reacting to the lack of diet pill medication in the system.

Some symptoms of withdrawal are uncomfortable, while others can be extremely distressing. A person may experience fatigue, muscle pain, low energy, concentration issues, return of appetite, and weight gain.

It is not unusual for a person experiencing diet pill withdrawal to struggle emotionally, with feelings of irritability, depression, anxiety, cravings, and agitation.

Medical professionals do not recommend that a person dealing with diet pill addiction just stop taking diet pills ‘cold-turkey’. This can result in the body going into shock, and the individual being at higher risk for relapse or major depressive disorder.

Instead, a medically supervised detox program is recommended, so medical professionals can taper down (gradually decrease) the level of diet pills in the body, while other medications are used to decrease the discomfort of diet pill withdrawal symptoms.

Diet Pill Addiction Treatment Options

Substance abuse treatment for diet pill addiction should be individualized to address the needs of each person in recovery. Starting with medically supervised detox, continuing through to aftercare planning. There are many options for diet pill addiction, and our specialists are available to help you find the best treatment option for you or your loved one.

Food and Drug Administration - Tainted Weight Loss Products

National Institutes of Health - Prescription Medications to Treat Overweight and Obesity

Mayo Clinic - Over-the-counter weight-loss pills

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