With a two-week holiday in Turkey looming, Hollie Powell was desperate to lose some weight to fit into her bikini.
So the support worker from Hereford turned to the internet for a quick-fix answer.
“I was a size 18 and knew I’d have to wear a bikini and was determined to look slimmer as fast as possible,” she says.
Then aged 19, she hated her body and had tried a host of diets from Atkins to Weight Watchers with no success.
Two of her friends, however, had recently lost weight using an online diet pill called Grenade Fat Burner, and it didn’t take Hollie very long to find a variety of “Pink Grenades” for sale on eBay for around £35 a tub.
What Hollie didn’t know at the time was that these pills (since reformulated) contained herbal stimulants and appetite suppressants that have been linked to a range of health problems, from bladder troubles to heart attacks.
“You think ‘herbal’ means safe, and all I really cared about then was whether they helped me lose weight – which they did straight away.
“I carried on taking them on holiday and came back two sizes smaller. I never felt hungry and only wanted to eat a third of my normal portion size at each meal,” says Hollie, who is now 25.
“In less than six months, I’d dropped four stone and was down to a size 12. It was as if I’d had a gastric band fitted!”
But Hollie’s weight loss came at a high price. She has suffered from painful bladder and kidney problems for the last five years, which her doctors say could be linked to her long-term use of pills containing ingredients that are now banned in the UK.
Hollie is far from alone in resorting to internet diet pills in a desperate bid to lose weight.
It’s a fast-growing problem that typically escalates every summer when the warmer weather means many of us feel the pressure to lose weight and look good on the beach.
The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, or MHRA, admits the problem is enormous and just last month seized a record £12million worth of fake and unlicensed medicine – much of it slimming pills.
The MHRA also shut down 1,300 UK-based websites selling the drugs online.
But it admits this is just the tip of the iceberg and that thousands of women in the UK are still buying slimming pills from web retailers that often belong to unscrupulous venders.
Of the vast array of legal and illegal diet pills available online, many are simply ineffectual and a waste of money. But others are potentially fatal as they contain prescription-only or banned ingredients.
“We frequently come across illegal slimming pills, containing ingredients such as Sibutramine, which was taken off the market as it put people at an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks,” warns a spokesman for the MHRA.
And yet the surge in use continues, despite nearly a constant flow of negative headlines associated with misused or downright dangerous slimming pills.
Former Liberty X singer Michelle Heaton, 32, recently talked about how her use of online diet pills containing the now-banned stimulant ephedrine has left her with a permanent heart condition called arrhythmia – the only cure for which is to have open-heart surgery to fit a pacemaker.
After her diagnosis she said: “I can’t believe I have heart disease at my age and worse, it’s probably my own fault.
“I would urge anyone considering taking diet pills of any sort to think very carefully.”
Others have had worse experiences than Michelle and Hollie.
Two years ago, 20-year-old cleaner Danni Trip suffered a fatal heart attack after overdosing on 20 slimming pills containing the stimulant DMAA, which gave her a caffeine hit equivalent to drinking 40 cups of coffee.
DMAA is not illegal to take or possess in the UK, but is not licensed, so, in theory, it shouldn’t be sold – however it’s easy enough to purchase online.
Then last September, tragic medical student Sarah Houston, 23, who had a history of eating disorders, was found dead in bed by her flatmates after taking a fatal dose of a slimming pill called DNP, which she’d bought online.
DNP is a pesticide banned for human consumption but openly sold on the internet as a quick-fix weight-loss pill – one of its side effects is that it causes an rise in body temperature and in large doses can cause death by literally cooking the body from within.
Any such potential side effects are usually far from the user’s mind when purchasing these products, as their drive to shed weight is so strong.
Hollie Powell was so delighted with the weight she lost from her net-bought pills that she continued taking them on and off for three years – ignoring the frequent headaches, her racing heart rate at night and the constant cystitis that she had begun to suffer from.
These are all symptoms she now admits began within a few weeks of taking the pills.
“I was taking four paracetamol a day, but the worst thing was the bladder problems – I was getting painful cystitis bouts every week.
“I didn’t connect the two at first, but I’d get better whenever I wasn’t on the diet pills,” she says.
Hollie’s bladder infections worsened and turned into several agonising kidney infections over the course of the next three years.
“I had so much time off work. As well as the burning and constant need to go to the toilet, I had searing back pains – it was awful.
“My doctor put me on two, six-month courses of strong antibiotics to try to stop the recurrent infections, but neither worked. In the end, I was referred to a urologist.
“When I explained about the diet pills, he thought it highly likely they had contributed to – if not caused my cystitis – probably due to the high caffeine content and possibly some of the other ingredients,” she says.
Research shows high doses of caffeine can trigger bladder problems in some people, especially in young women such as Hollie, who are more prone to cystitis anyway, according to Zaki Almallah, consultant urologist at BMI Healthcare.
“Caffeine causes the kidney to overproduce urine while it also overstimulates the bladder wall, causing contractions as it tries to force the urine out.
“For example, a diet pill containing 300mg of caffeine – a typical dose – taken three times a day is equivalent to nearly 10 cups of coffee, which is very high for the majority of people and could certainly trigger bladder irritation,” Zaki says.
In addition, other ingredients in the pills Hollie took have been linked to a higher risk of bladder problems and, even more worryingly, to serious heart problems.
In fact, last year the MHRA ruled that two ingredients in the Grenade Fat Burner pills Hollie took were not suitable to be used in nonprescription drugs, a move which forced the manufacturers to reformulate a special UK version of their supplement.
The pre-2012 pills, still available in the US, contained bitter orange extract, or synephrine – a stimulant closely related to ephedra – the now-banned drug linked to many deaths related to slimming pills in the US.
One study by the US Mayo Clinic found diet pills containing caffeine and bitter orange extract together were linked to increased blood pressure, strokes and heart attacks.
The older version of the Grenade Fat Burner pills also contained yohimbine, another herbal stimulant that can cause side effects, such as rapid heart rate, high blood pressure, headaches and has even been linked to seizures and kidney failure.
Both ingredients are now banned in supplements in the UK and only available on prescription.
But even though this particular diet pill is now available in a legal formulation, as quickly as one illegal tablet is taken off the market, another replaces it.
There’s the added complication of some companies exploiting legal loopholes by marketing pills with clever wording, or selling via third parties on sites such as eBay, making the real seller hard to trace.
A quick Google search proves how easy it is to find pills being sold in the UK that still claim to contain these now illegal ingredients.
Health experts urge people not to take slimming medicines bought online without consulting a doctor.
“It simply is not worth the danger as you just don’t know what is in them. Any weight loss results they offer could come with such a huge risk,” warns the MHRA.
Hollie can’t help but agree: “The truth is, you just don’t know what you’re buying – or the potential side effects. I lost weight, but it wasn’t worth it for the health problems I believe it’s left me with.”
Only last month Hollie had surgery to flush out her bladder with anti-inflammatory drugs, a procedure which can help stretch and calm the bladder lining to ease discomfort.
The op seems to have worked and she’s now pain-free for the first time in years.
But Hollie has been told she may have done permanent damage to her bladder and can now only drink water – with fruit juice, alcohol and caffeine all off limits to prevent any relapses.
“But as horrible as my bladder problems have been, when I read about the heart problems and deaths caused by some online slimming pills, I feel lucky,” Hollie confesses.
And if her story has a happy ending, it’s the fact that she’s proof that permanent weight loss is possible without needing to resort to pills.
“I’ve now managed to stay at a size 12 for the last two years, doing it the old-fashioned way – a healthy diet, exercise and willpower.
“It’s not easy, and I’ll admit there are still moments when I yearn for a quick fix, but at least this way I won’t be risking my health.”