Congressman’s wife died after taking herbal remedy marketed for diabetes and weight loss

SACRAMENTO — The wife of a Northern California congressman died late last year after ingesting a plant that is generally considered safe and is used as an herbal remedy for a variety of ailments, including diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol, Kaiser Health News has learned.

Lori McClintock, the wife of U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock, died from dehydration due to gastroenteritis — an inflammation of the stomach and intestines — that was caused by “adverse effects of white mulberry leaf ingestion,” according to a report from the Sacramento County coroner that is dated March 10 but was not immediately released to the public. KHN obtained that report — in addition to the autopsy report and an amended death certificate containing an updated cause of death — in July.

The coroner’s office ruled her death an accident. The original death certificate, dated Dec. 20, 2021, listed the cause of death as “pending.”

Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents a district that spans multiple counties in northern and central California, found his 61-year-old wife unresponsive at their Elk Grove, California, home on Dec. 15, 2021, according to the coroner’s report. He had just returned from Washington, D.C., after voting in Congress the night before.

It’s unclear from the autopsy report whether Lori McClintock took a dietary supplement containing white mulberry leaf, ate fresh or dried leaves, or drank them in a tea, but a “partially intact” white mulberry leaf was found in her stomach, according to the report.

McClintock’s death underscores the risks of the vast, booming market of dietary supplements and herbal remedies, which have grown into a $54 billion industry in the United States — one that both lawmakers and health care experts say needs more government scrutiny.

“Many people assume if that product is sold in the United States of America, somebody has inspected it, and it must be safe. Unfortunately, that’s not always true,” U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) said on the Senate floor this spring when he introduced legislation to strengthen oversight of dietary supplements.

Daniel Fabricant, CEO and president of the Natural Products Association, which represents the dietary supplements industry, questioned whether McClintock’s death was related to a supplement.

“It’s completely speculative. There’s a science to this. It’s not just what a coroner feels,” said Fabricant, who oversaw dietary supplements at the FDA during the Obama administration. “People unfortunately pass from dehydration every day, and there’s a lot of different reasons and a lot of different causes.”

Fabricant said it would have been ideal had the coroner or the family reported her death to the FDA so the agency could have launched an investigation.

Such reports are voluntary, and it’s not clear whether anyone reported her death to the agency. FDA spokesperson Courtney Rhodes said the agency does not discuss possible or ongoing investigations.

The FDA, Fabricant added, has a system in place to investigate deaths that might be linked to a supplement or drug. “It’s casework,” he said. “It’s good, old-fashioned police work that needs to be done.”

Tom McClintock has remained mostly silent about his wife’s death since he released a statement on Dec. 19, 2021, announcing it and gave a tribute to her at her Jan. 4 funeral. Until now, the cause of death had not been reported.

Tom McClintock, contacted multiple times by phone and email Wednesday, was not immediately available for comment.

At his wife’s funeral, McClintock told mourners that she was fine when he spoke with her the day before he returned. She had told a friend that “she was on a roll” at a new job she loved in a Sacramento real estate office, he said, and “she was carefully dieting.”

“She just joined a gym,” he said. “At home, she was counting down the days to Christmas, wrapping all the gifts and making all the plans to make it the best family Christmas ever, and it would have been.”

According to the coroner’s report, however, the day before her death, “she had complaints of an upset stomach.”

Sacramento County spokesperson Kim Nava said via email Wednesday that the law prohibits the coroner’s office from discussing many details of specific cases. As part of any death investigation, the office “attempts to locate and review medical records and speak to family/witnesses to establish events leading up to and surrounding a death,” she said.

If any medications or supplements are found at the scene or if pertinent information is in the person’s medical records, those are passed along to the pathologist to help establish cause of death, Nava said.

“Any information the office obtains from medical records can’t be disseminated to a third party except by court order,” she said.

The leaves and fruit of the white mulberry tree, which is native to China, have been used for centuries in traditional medicine. Academic studies over the past decade have found that the extract from its leaves can lower blood sugar levels and help with weight loss. People take it in capsule or pill form, as an extract or powder. They can also brew the leaves as an herbal tea.

Lori McClintock’s reaction seems unusual. No deaths from the white mulberry plant have been reported to poison control officials in the past 10 years, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Since 2012, 148 cases of white mulberry plant ingestion were voluntarily reported to poison control officials nationally, most involving accidental ingestion by children 12 and under, said Kaitlyn Brown, clinical managing director for the association. Only one case required medical follow-up, she said.

While poison control centers track exposures to the white mulberry plant, the FDA oversees dietary supplements, such as products that contain white mulberry leaf extract. Since 2004, two cases of people sickened by mulberry supplements have been reported to the FDA, according to its database that tracks “adverse events.” It relies heavily on voluntary reports from health care professionals and consumers. At least one of those cases led to hospitalization.

White mulberry leaf can have side effects, including nausea and diarrhea, according to research. Independent lab tests ordered by the coroner’s office showed McClintock’s body had elevated levels of nitrogen, sodium, and creatinine — all signs of dehydration, according to three pathologists who reviewed the coroner’s documents, which KHN redacted to remove McClintock’s name.

White mulberry leaves “do tend to cause dehydration, and part of the uses for that can be to help someone lose weight, mostly through fluid loss, which in this case was just kind of excessive,” said Dr. D’Michelle DuPre, a retired forensic pathologist and a former medical examiner in South Carolina who reviewed the documents.