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In today’s New York Times article, “Army Studies Workout Supplements After Deaths,” Peter Lattman and Natasha Singer write about the Defense Department’s inquiry into the safety of dimethylamylamine (also known as DMAA), a common ingredient in workout and fitness supplements sold at GNC and The Vitamin Shoppe.

The ingredient has been implicated in the sudden deaths of two young soldiers, aged 22 and 32, who died of heart attacks while exercising.  The Army’s safety review is currently underway, but the Defense Department has already removed all products containing dimethylamylamine from stores on military bases.

I admire the Army’s swift action.  When civilians question the safety of a product, their concerns are followed by debates, petitions for recall, paperwork, studies, lawsuits, and — if all goes well — eventually, action.  Military bases are a different story; the military has long functioned as more of a bureaucratic establishment. The military does not live and breathe by funding from pharmaceutical companies and food manufacturers, much like so many of our elected officials.  When the Army bans an ingredient from its military bases, the public should take note.

In addition to the untimely deaths of the two soldiers — whose toxicology reports both noted the presence of DMAA — the army had also received “reports of liver and kidney failures, seizures, loss of consciousness and rapid heartbeat in other military personnel who have used products containing DMAA,” according to the article.  USPLabs, the maker of DMAA, compared the effects to those of caffeine.

If the effects of DMAA are like those of caffeine, then why are fitness buffs and the manufacturers of fitness supplements choosing DMAA over caffeine? Here’s why:  Because the effects of DMAA are more like those of methamphetamine. DMAA was first developed my pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.  When doctors noted that its effects were amphetamine-like — and medical literature reported that its effects were more powerful than heart-stopping ephedrine — Eli Lilly stopped marketing it as a pharmaceutical, and DMAA quietly resurfaced as a dietary supplement.

Let’s examine what went wrong here.

Who is regulating the safety of dietary supplements?  The answer, in short, is no one.  In 1994, the FDA decided to consider anything labeled a “dietary supplement” as a special category of food, not as a drug.  As the FDA explains, under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), “the dietary supplement or dietary ingredient manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement or ingredient is safe before it is marketed.”  In fact, the safety of dietary supplements is only regulated by those who stand to benefit from their sale: the manufacturers. The DSHEA was a major boon for lobbyists of the manufacturers of dietary supplements, who had engaged in a massive campaign intended to bring about this legislation.  The New York Times called the act “ill-conceived” and “a formula for covering up problems.”  A Time magazine article described the act as giving manufacturers “virtually free reign to market products defined as dietary supplements, while severely limiting the FDA’s ability to regulate them.”

Does this mean that all dietary supplements are harmful?  Absolutely not.  What this means is that you must research the safety of your dietary supplements on you own — because our government is not doing it for you.

The good news is that plenty of beneficial vitamins, minerals, and herbs fall under this category as well.  One example is Stevia.  Stevia, also called “sugarleaf” and “sweetleaf,” is an herb related to the sunflower family.  Stevia has been available as a sweetener around the world for decades, and has been widely used in Japan since the 1970s.  In powder form, the naturally sugar-free, calorie-free herb, which has little effect on blood glucose levels, was an obvious answer to the United States’ sugar addiction.  Unfortunately, due to the FDA’s close ties to the manufacturer’s of artificial sweeteners, stevia was not approved as a food additive.  However, through the DSHEA loophole, stevia was available in health food stores as a dietary supplement. (In 2008, the FDA approved a chemical extract of Stevia, known as rebaudioside A, as a food additive; the approval just so happened to coincide with Coca-Cola’s launch of Truvia and PepsiCo’s launch of PureVia, two highly-processed forms of rebaudioside A with additional non-Stevia additives and flavors.  Truvia and PureVia are extremely different from true Stevia, and many side effects have been reported.)

The onus to research dietary supplements falls on you. In the United States, the fact that you can legally purchase a substance labeled as a “dietary supplement” has absolutely nothing to do with its safety.

How can you avoid dimethylamylamine and DMAA?  In a health safety alert to athletes, the U.S. Anti-Doping Association warns of the effects of dimethylamylamine and advises athletes to:

  • Avoid the following substances: methylhexaneamine, a 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA), dimethylpentylamine (DMP) 4-methylhexan-2-amine, Geranamine, geranium oil, geranium extract, geranium stems, geranium leaves
  • Avoid the following products: Jack3d (USP Labs), Lipo-6-Black and Hemo-Rage Black (Nutrex), Spriodex (Gaspari Nutrition), F-10 (Advanced Genetics), Clear Shot (E-Pharm), 1.M.R. (BPI Sports), and many others.
  • Avoid products with names or marketing performance terms such as “stacked,” “muscle,” “mass,” “tren,” “bol,” “anabolic steroid,” “legal steroid,” “power,” “blast,” “energy,” “stimulant,” and others.
  • Use your best judgement.  Unfortunately, due to the extremely permissive regulation of dietary supplements, the U.S. Anti-Doping Association notes multiple “instances where a supplement actually contained ingredients that were not listed on the label.”

If you must supplement your workout, keep it simple: Drink a cup of coffee.  Since we know the human body responds differently to extracts than to ingredients in their natural form, avoid caffeine-containing supplements as well.  Better yet, let the workout itself raise your heart rate, and skip the stimulants altogether.  Your only have one heart; your next fitness shake, drink, pill, or supplement, could be your last.

Still unconvinced? Visit Supplement Safety Now.

Photo Credit: William P. O’Donnell for The New York Times