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Hidden Hazards of Sports and Dietary Supplements

Date Posted: 2000-07-14

During the summer following his 19th birthday, Marine PFC John Smith discovered a neat way to enhance his aerobic and anaerobic performances. He was able to bench press and dead lift 5% more weight and run faster and farther than usual. As an added bonus, Smith’s appetite was less and he lost 10 pounds¾in just 2 weeks! Then, tragedy struck. Less than 20 minutes after he went out for a 6-mile run, a passerby found the Marine dead on the side of the road.

What killed this young, healthy Marine? Was it chronic heart disease or lung disease? Or was it the performance-enhancing pill that he had been taking? At autopsy, there were no signs of chronic heart, lung, or other diseases. The coroner concluded that the performance enhancing supplement that PFC Smith was taking¾a combination of Ephedra (Ma Huang) and caffeine¾caused him to go into cardiac arrest and prevented his brain from regulating excess body heat that accumulated during strenuous exercise. The young Marine started taking one pill prior to working out, then two and, eventually, he started taking three pills. He figured if one pill worked well, then three pills would work three times as well.

The above story is fictional, but represents a growing public health epidemic¾athletes and others trying to take short cuts to their ultimate fitness goals. Marketing sports/dietary supplements (also called power building/energy-enhancing dietary supplements or ergogenic aids) is big business. In just 6 years, the sale of dietary/sports supplements nearly doubled, going from $3.3 billion in 1990 to $6.5 billion in 1996. Dietary/sports supplements are widely available at fitness centers, supermarkets, drug and health food stores. Surveys show that almost half of all Americans admit to taking some type of dietary supplement in the form of amino acids, vitamins/minerals, herbs, and performance-enhancing agents.

The intrigue of these products has to do with slick advertisement that promises to improve the amount of weight one can lift, the length of time and intensity one can workout, and the ease with which one can build muscles and lose weight. Unfortunately, most supplement users believe that “natural” products are harmless. But this is not true. Numerous cases of stroke, heart attacks, and deaths associated with sports/dietary supplements have been reported. People with a history of seizures, diabetes, high blood pressure, glaucoma, heart, thyroid, and prostate problems are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of these agents. Androstenedione and other steroid supplements can cause breast enlargement, testicular shrinkage, decreased sperm count, and irritability in men. Women can expect to get acne, male-pattern hair growth, and a decrease in breast tissue. Ephedra and other ergogenic agents may interact with antidepressant and blood pressure medications. For military personnel, some of these agents can cause a positive urinalysis for amphetamines.

Because these agents are sold as “dietary supplements,” they are available without a doctor’s prescription and, unlike regular drugs, they have not undergone rigorous scientific scrutiny. The fact is, these supplements are drugs being sold with the help of legal loopholes (e.g., the steroid supplements claim “only one enzymatic step away from the real thing” but they become the real thing once processed in the body). Many prominent scientists and clinical doctors recommend against using performance-enhancing and dietary supplements. Critics of these products reason that because these supplements have not undergone scientific studies, and are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, that the following uncertainties remain:

· What’s the safe dosage of these supplements?

· How do these supplements interact with regular medications (e.g., pain medications)?

· Who shouldn’t take these supplements; e.g., can adolescents take them?

· What is the quality of the manufactured product? Since they are unregulated, many of these items don’t always contain the ingredient listed on the labels.

· What are the risks to consumer when little or no mandated information is available, unlike the requirement of manufacturers to disclose information of their products?

· What are the potential health hazards from long-term use?


For more information on performance-enhancing and dietary supplements contact your health care provider or call the Kadena Health and Wellness Center (HAWC) at 634-2499 or U.S. Naval Hospital, Okinawa HAWC at 645-2620.

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