The herbal remedy caused the sudden and untimely death of Laura McClintock, the 61-year-old wife of U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.). according to a report by Kaiser Health Newswho recently received the coroner’s papers, autopsy reports, and an amended death certificate.
Tom McClintock, who represents a district in Northern California, found his wife unresponsive at their Elk Grove home on December 15, 2021, after he returned from Washington, D.C. A coroner’s report showed she had complained of an “upset stomach” the day before she died, but McClintock said his wife was otherwise fine. He said she is “counting down the days until Christmas”, wrapping presents, planning a family Christmas and recently joined the gym.
According to coroner’s records, Laurie McClintock’s death was the result of “adverse effects of ingestion of white mulberry leaves.” Ingestion of the leaves of the tree caused gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines), which led to dehydration, which caused her death. Coroner’s documents noted that McClintock had elevated nitrogen, sodium and creatinine levels, which independent pathologists confirmed to KHN as signs of dehydration. The cause of death listed on her death certificate was updated from “expected” to accidental.
Like many herbal remedies, white mulberry is believed to be useful in the treatment of various ailments – with little to no evidence. The most common is diabetes. Studies have shown that the tree, native to China, contains antidiabetic compounds which can lower blood glucose levels in diabetic mice. But white mulberry is also said to help with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, weight loss, the common cold, joint pain, and arthritis, among other conditions.
It is not clear why McClintock ingested the white mulberry leaves – or exactly how. Tom McClintock mentioned that his wife was “hardly on a diet,” which may indicate that she was taking the leaves to lose weight. Common uses of mulberry leaves include extracts, powders, and teas. But according to the coroner’s report, McClintock had a “partially intact” white mulberry leaf in her stomach at the time of her death, suggesting she had swallowed fragments or whole leaves.
It is also unclear why she had such a strong reaction to the leaves. KHN notes that no deaths related to white mulberry have been reported to the poison control center in the past 10 years. Although almost 150 reports of poisonings were made during this time, most of them were related to accidental consumption by children.
There is a milky sap in the veins of mulberry leaves, called latex rich in alkaloids that mimic diabetes and toxic to caterpillars but not to silkworms. But the leaves are generally not considered toxic to humans or animals. In fact, some people think that the leaves are nutritious snacks for some animals.
In 2011, researchers from Thailand published data on 23 people who took mulberry leaf pills to lower cholesterol. While the researchers reported positive results, they noted that 26 percent of people developed mild diarrhea, 9 percent developed dizziness, and 4 percent developed abdominal bloating.
While many questions remain about the McClintock case, it highlights a long-standing problem that vitamins, herbs and minerals in the US are not rigorously tested for safety and effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration as drugs. The FDA also has limited ability to monitor and track the tens of thousands of dietary supplements on the market.