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Dangerous Supplements: A Body To Die For

From eDiets - The online diet, fitness, and healthy living resource

Wouldn't it be great if all we had to do to be slim and trim was to pop a little magic pill every day? Most of us have tried fad diets and even swallowed a pill or two in our attempts to lose weight. More and more, we are learning that not only are some of these supplements useless, they are downright dangerous.

The true extent of illness caused by supplements is not known, because while the worst cases attract attention, less serious ones may go undiagnosed or unreported. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) itself estimates that it gets reports on less than 1 percent of the severe adverse effects linked to dietary supplements.

The supplement industry, with sales of more than $17 billion a year, is so loosely regulated that products can be marketed without the proof of safety and efficacy required for drugs by the FDA, which cannot take a supplement off the market unless there is proof that consumers have been harmed. As long as manufacturers do not claim that their products can be used to treat or cure disease, they are not regarded as drugs.

Let’s take a look at two supplements that have gotten a lot of media attention lately for causing serious injury and death.

First we have Ephedra, which goes by the names of ma huang, ephedrine, sida cordifolia and epitonin. Ephedra has been used in China for thousands of years. This chemical elevates blood pressure, stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and the heart, increases perspiration and suppresses appetite. In the United States, these characteristics have turned ephedra into a popular component of numerous weight loss, energy enhancing and sports performance supplements. Common name brands include Metabolife 356, Stacker 2 and Natural Trim.

Extracted from several plant varieties, ephedra’s status as an herbal supplement rather than a prescription drug has allowed distributors to elude the strict standards of the FDA in the past. It's unsafe even when taking recommended doses and should be restricted according to doctors who've studied reports on bad reactions to the herb. Ephedra accounted for 65 percent of all adverse reactions involving herbs, even though it's found in less than 1 percent of all herbal products.

A study based on data collected by the American Association of Poison Control centers is the latest to question ephedra's safety. The FDA has reports of nearly 100 deaths of people who took the herb. It's a stimulant that can quicken a person's heart rate and cause blood vessels to constrict. The American Medical Association (AMA) has also advised people not to use ephedra.

The FDA is now proposing warning labels -- reviving an attempt the powerful dietary supplement industry had blocked for years -- while saying a ban on at least some products containing ephedra remains under discussion. The action came less than two weeks after a medical examiner announced the heatstroke death of a Baltimore Orioles pitcher was probably linked to his use of ephedra. The FDA, which has reports of at least 100 deaths linked to ephedra supplements, had been under pressure from doctors for years to ban the herb -- but the death of pitcher Steve Bechler renewed the scrutiny.

The other supplement that has made the news lately is Usnic Acid. The capsules sound wonderful, claiming to increase metabolism to help the body burn off fat. The weight-loss product, Lipokinetix, which contained a form of usnic acid called sodium usniate and other ingredients, has been blamed for a death from liver failure, two liver transplants and seven cases of liver failure from which patients recovered. Doctors suspect that usnic acid played a role. Lipokinetix is no longer on the market, but other products containing usnic acid are still available. The FDA warns consumers not to use Lipokinetix, touted a "dietary supplement" by Syntrax Innovations, Inc., of Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Doctors from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles detail seven cases of liver disease linked to LipoKinetix, including one woman who needed a liver transplant. "All seven of these people were young and healthy when they started taking LipoKinetix. They had no medical history, no liver problems. They were not taking any other prescription or over-the-counter drugs, and they took the LipoKinetix according to the manufacturer's instructions," says Dr. Joya T. Favreau, lead author and an internist at Cedars-Sinai.

All of the patients suffered varying degrees of hepatotoxicity (liver damage), including one young woman who suffered so much damage she needed a liver transplant to survive.

Doctors feel this is what happens when you sell what amounts to medications without having to be accountable to anyone, in terms of regulating agencies. With no system in place requiring proof of either a supplement's safety or effectiveness, it's too easy for questionable products to get into consumers' hands.

So, if the answer isn’t in a pill, what is it? What you need is a healthy meal plan that will allow you to lose weight and maintain that loss forever. The eDiets plan combined with exercise is just the solution you need!

Dr. Nancy Tice is a psychiatrist with extensive experience furnishing medical information and writing articles for online services. She did her medical training at The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. She moderates her own support group called "Rx for Success," writes articles for the eDiets newsletters, holds online meetings and answers questions in our Expert Interaction section.
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