Health NW: Sports and supplements

Kathryn B. Brown

Spring is coming, and with spring comes baseball. This year, the pro baseball season got off to a sad start with the death of Steve Bechler, a 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher. Bechler's death by heatstroke and organ failure was brought on by his use of a dietary supplement containing ephedra, which he was taking for weight loss.

He's not the first sports figure to die using ephedra. Rashidi Wheeler, who played football for Northwestern University, Korey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings and Devaughn Darling, a Florida State football player are also on the list.

All the branches of the United States military have banned ephedra-containing products. Between 1997 and 2001, more than 30 active-duty members of the armed forces who used ephedra have died.

Dietary supplements are sold over the counter. Their labels often describe the contents as "natural" or "herbal." Some claim to increase metabolism, boost energy and aid in weight loss. Others claim to increase muscle mass, strength and endurance.

For young athletes, these supplements are tempting. Who wouldn't pass up the chance to lose fat, build muscle, be stronger and go faster just by swallowing a pill, powder or liquid? After all, it's natural, so it must be safe.

Wrong. The truth is that the dietary supplement industry is only loosely regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They require certain information to be listed on the labels of supplements, but the FDA does not check to make sure that the product contains the ingredients or quantities listed on the label. Only if many serious reports of harm come to their attention can the FDA act to restrict or ban a substance, which is happening now with ephedra.

But don't assume that ephedra-containing products are off the market yet. They are still readily available for purchase in stores as well as over the Internet.

Young people need to be educated on the dangers of dietary supplements. Parents need to know what their kids are taking and why. Teen-agers, both boys and girls, may turn to supplements hoping for an easy way to lose weight, build muscles or to get high legally. Ephedra and substances like it can be used to make methamphetamine.

Ephedra is not the only dietary supplement that can be dangerous. Here's a partial list of supplements that have been associated with serious health problems:

• Comfrey: liver damage

• Creatine: kidney damage

• Echinacea: allergic reactions

• Germanium: kidney failure

• L-tryptophan: eosinophilia-myalgia syndrome

• Usnic acid and sodium usniate: liver damage

If you have a bad reaction to a dietary supplement, you should stop taking it and immediately see a health care provider. You or your health care provider can report this adverse reaction directly to the FDA by calling (800) FDA-1088.

Another issue for young athletes is steroid use. Anabolic steroids, used to increase muscle mass, are associated with liver damage, risk of heart attacks, stroke, increased aggression, depression and acne. They are addictive.

The bottom line is this: exercise, good nutrition and plenty of sleep are the best and safest ways to get strong, lose weight and increase energy. Any company that claims that their product is a "natural" way to get these results is not interested in your health. They are interested in your money.

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