Deadly Health Supplements


My field is health – which is radically removed from bodybuilding.  Oh, the work-out gurus will tell you they are experts in nutrition and health, but their knowledge is often flawed (to put it charitably).  And they view someone like me with “Book Learning” as a real kill-joy.

There is something special about bodybuilding supplements — allegedly natural ones.  I remember a fairly brittle bipolar – a young and pumped-up muscular male model — who refused, as both I and his girlfriend pleaded with him, to give up a body building supplement. I told him the contents seemed strange and unknown to me.  This supplement had made him go angry and seemingly psychotic and she was ready to break up with him if he did not stop this strange supplement.

The girlfriend trusted me.  The young man was lost in wishful thinking (and perhaps an adverse drug reaction bordering on psychosis).

Despite our urgings, he still clung to his magical booster for dear life, for no reason I could particularly find with question or exploration.

The only possible reason I could think of then — or now — was a reason once proffered for a similar situation by a wonderful Lutheran pastor in Fargo, North Dakota.  He was wonderful because he was one of the few Christian pastors I have ever known who seemed to respect me for being Jewish.  He made no attempt to convert me, for which I was delighted, as many have, with responses from me ranging from loving sparring to knockout punches.  Jews should not be force-converted, especially when we are doing “just fine,” as I am.

He did tell me he knew of no more intellectual Christian writing than the Screwtape Letters,” by C.S. Lewis,  which I actually looked at before telling him I was not about to get converted, and he accepted my decision.

We agreed that one of the problems of our era, one I have only seen amplified since then, was something he called –and I thought it was a fantastic term, the “idolatry of the body.”

Sure, both sexes were guilty, but we kept thinking of examples involving men.  This seems accurate as it seems to involve muscle size and definition, rarely a concern, to women, who seem to me to be more concerned about flat stomachs and how they look in a bikini.

I have enough trouble with the “no pain-no gain” mentality that seems rampant in military or military-like workout addicts.  I feel worse about those who push their workout by trying to “cheat” the pain.

“All natural” sure sounds good for this supplement “Reumofan.”  Naturally what?  Prescription steroids, I guess.  It is unlikely the contents of this supplement has anything to do with what is on the label.  A weird trail of addresses on the internet and maybe somewhere in Mexico suggest the company, Rigan, that made it may not even exist.  I suppose it had devotees, because it “felt” good.

The label listed shark cartilage, white willow, and glucosamine as ingredients.  Even if it had these things, I warn patients about “white willow,” as it can have the same side effects as aspirin, which can at the very least make an adult bleed if you take too much.

Reported side effects have included “liver injury, strokes, and severe bleeding,” in individual reports obtained by the stalwart folks at USA Today through the freedom of information act.

Warning reports have been issued by Mexican health authorities and our own FDA since spring of 2012.  I try to follow such warnings but I am admittedly late on this one.

No product registration.  No pre-marketing testing.  Lots of users who say it has made them better.

From the article they look like long-suffering old folks more than any kind of young body builder.

What about label reading?  The product was made in Mexico, and much of the label was in Spanish, which could not be read by those users the newspaper interviewed.

There were FDA warnings, which one user actually knew about and ignored, since he felt better with the supplement.

It has been shown to contain not one. but three prescription medications (all of which I have personally, albeit several years ago, seen on sale without prescriptions in Tijuana pharmacies).

1.Dexamethasone.  Its a steroid, and comes with all of the secondary effects that go with steroid use and abuse.

I always caution patients about a very serious list of potential side effects from steroids as reported through the Mayo Clinic website.  You can’t get any more mainstream than this.  It is amazing to me that these would be acceptable in a supplement, when I have lots of patients who decline them when given any kind of balance of the advantages and risks.

I have always wondered why young males take them at all, since they pretty much screw up male sexual performance.

2. Diclofenac sodium, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory.  Side effects are many –and serious.  How serious?  They kill about 10,000 people a year worldwide, who most often bleed out from an ulcer before they can get to a hospital.

… and still being researched.

Methocarbamol A muscle relaxant — just in case the joint pain is really muscle pain.  Not exactly an exact science, huh?  And it’s not exactly “chicken soup” (which the Jewish are fond of saying, “It couldn’t hurt!”). is a reference I trust and use often.  Exact incidence may not yet be clocked, but the laundry list of side effects is so long that anyone could find something disagreeable.

There are a lot of things going on here.

1. People want to feel better.  They care amazingly little about risks and unrelated phenomena.  They are making decisions with their bodies and not with their brains.

2.  People who market natural substances are at least as unscrupulous as any prescription drug company at their worst.  Everything you put in your mouth with a pretension of making you feel better needs to be checked thoroughly.  If you can’t figure out how, ask me.

3.  Although individuals may have varying levels of knowledge and naivite, the fact remains that the FDA is basically useless.  Other countries seem to have the ability to make dangerous supplements illegal. We do not.  Our regulatory agency for food, cosmetics and drugs clearly and certainly does not work.

I often despair that the field I’ve studied my entire life is over-run by do-it-yourselfers who think they only need some intuition and an internet connection to match my expertise.

They are often dead wrong – and I’d love to help them.

But they have to want to listen and learn.

And – in some cases – you really have to spend some money.  Sorry, folks – that’s the way the world works.

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