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Warning: Excessive tea drinking can be hazardous to your health

March 22, 2013|By Karen Kaplan
  • A few cups of tea a day are harmless, but a daily pitcher made with up to 150 tea bags caused serious health problems for a Detroit-area woman.
A few cups of tea a day are harmless, but a daily pitcher made with up to 150… (Kevin P. Casey / For the Times )

You can never be too rich or too thin, perhaps, but you certainly can drink too much tea. 

That’s the bottom line of an unusual case report published in this week’s edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. 

Doctors at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit treated a 47-year-old woman who had suffered from pain in her lower back, hips, legs and arms. She was also missing all of her teeth because they had become brittle. 

Something was wrong with her bones. Sure enough, X-rays revealed that the vertebrae in her spine showed signs of a painful condition called skeletal fluorosis.  

Doctors gave her a blood test to measure the concentration of flouride in her system. A typical healthy person has less than 0.10 of a milligram of flouride per liter of blood; the patient had 0.43 mg per liter, according to the journal report. 

Skeletal fluorosis can strike people who drink water with high concentrations of fluoride (much higher than in parts of the United States that add fluoride to the water supply). Industrial workers who inhale fluoride dust and fumes are also vulnerable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Neither of those conditions was a factor with the Michigan patient. But she did admit to drinking a lot of black tea.  

For most people, black tea isn’t a huge source of fluoride -- an entire liter typically contains 1 to 5 milligrams, though some reports put the figure as high as 9 mg, studies have found. But heavy tea drinkers have been known to develop skeletal fluorosis.

For instance, this 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism reported on a 48-year-old woman who developed the condition “after consuming 1–2 gallons of brewed orange pekoe tea daily for more than three decades.” And this 2008 case report in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research reported on a 49-year-old woman who got it after drinking two gallons of instant tea every day since she was 12 years old. 

How does our Michigan patient compare? She told doctors that she drank a pitcher of tea every day for the last 17 years. This wasn’t your typical tea -- she brewed hers with 100 to 150 tea bags per pitcher. (That must have been one extra-large pitcher.) 

Don’t believe me? You can read the report online here

Return to the Booster Shots blog.

Follow me on Twitter @LATkarenkaplan

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