Supplements: I'm like a kid in a candy store
By Mike Sielski
Like a kid in a candy store: Easy-to-find supplements tempt athletes without warning them
By Mike Sielski
Aug. 17, 2001
A recent afternoon, a blinding sun above, less than a week before high school football practice begins. It's 95 degrees, with 43 percent humidity The air is like gauze. It's jungle hot.
I'm feeling a bit sluggish, a bit sapped of strength, and a bit curious. My body needs a boost.
I decide to go supplement shopping.
There's a General Nutrition Center around the corner, but I forgo it. At 5-foot-8,159 pounds, I'd be too conspicuous there. I don't want to be bothered by a supplement salesman with a Schwarzeneggerish physique looking down at me and saying, You've obviously never tried any of these products before, have you, little man? with muscled condescension.
Instead, I head to the Eckerd Drugstore next door to the GNC. There, in the center aisle, near the back of the store, I find what I'm looking for.
First, I find bottle of glucosamine chortdroitin - eight different brands of the stuff. Chondroitin is a molecule found it cartilage. Taken orally, it helps relieve joint pain.
If I were a high school football player -- slamming into blocking sleds and armor-plated people every day, walking away with everything aching – I might think I need this. It's $29.99 for 110 capsules -- a small price to pay to pain-free.
The label doesn't mention Gerald Weissman, a physician at New York University, who has pointed out that European cattle cartilage might be the source for some chondroitin product and, as a result, those products might be contaminated with mad-cow disease.
Down the aisle, next to the vitamin C pills, I see one bottle of dihydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, a steroid hormone naturally secreted by the adrenal glands. The body converts it into other hormones. In males, it's converted into testosterone.
If I were a high school football player -- a lineman who wanted to add muscle and trim fat -- I might think I need this. It's $19.99 for 300 tablets -- a small price to pay for larger, tighter pectorals.
The label does mention that each tablet equals 25 milligrams of DHEA. But it doesn't mention that Dr. Ray Sahelian, a Drexel University and Thomas Jefferson Medical School graduate and supplement expert, has reported cases of heart arrhythmia with "high-dose DHEA use." Or that he has seen side effects from DHEA such as acne, hair loss and aggression. Or that he has said: "DHEA should not be sold over the counter in doses greater than 5 milligrams."
I turn the corner and notice another row of quick fixes. Bottles of ephedra are near my feet, on the bottom shelf. Also known as ma huang, ephedra is a Chinese plant ingested to boost energy levels and shed pounds.
If I were a high school football player -- a fullback who is tiring during wind sprints and who is a heartbeat late every time he tries to cut down an oncoming linebacker -- I might think I need this.
The most potent brand of ephedra sold at Eckerd, Stacker 2, costs $33.99 for 100 mustard-colored capsules -- a small price to pay to be a split-second quicker off the snap.
There are at least four other brands of ephedra on the shelf, and each of those four has the same disclaimer on its label: “This product has not been evaluated by the FDA," the Food and Drug Administration. That's because ephedra, like DHEA and chondroitin, is classified as a dietary supplement, and, under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, it is not subject to pre-market review by the administration. Stacker 2's label doesn't have the disclaimer.
Of course, none of the labels mentions that ephedra is a source of alkaloids of ephedrine, the active chemical in methamphetamine. Or that ephedra, according to the FDA, is reportedly responsible for 80 deaths and more than 1,400 adverse side effects since 1994. Or that Northwestern University is investigating whether this "legalized speed" -- as one anti-ephedra activist calls it contributed to the sudden death of Wildcats safety Rashidi Wheeler on NU's practice field earlier this month.
I move on to the tubs of creatine, three in a row along the top shelf. At Eckerd, creatine -- the popular energy-upping, muscle-replenishing nutrient -- is sold only in powder or pill form. The drugstore doesn't carry the new Creatine ExcelPatch, which is worn on the arm and transports creatine through the skin.
If I were a high school football player, I might have tried creative already, so embedded is it in the culture of high school, college and professional football. The 1 1/2-pound containers of powder cost $19.99 apiece -- the going price to keep pace with an opponent who's faster, bigger, stronger.
Though little conclusive data exists about creatine's long-term effects, dehydration is almost universally acknowledged as a short-term result of its use. None of the labels on the tubs mentions dehydration. And none of them mentions how he oppressive heat and humidity of this August afternoon the sort of weather that led to the recent deaths of University of Florida fullback Eraste Autin and Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer -- might affect someone who is taking creative.
So I leave Eckerd, empty-handed but wiser. I know now that I can visit my local drugstore to bulk up and purchase instant pep.
Not that I would. As the GNC salesman would have come noted, I've never taken glucosamine chondroitin. Or DHEA. Or ephedra. Or creatine. I'm not using any of them.
But I wonder who is.
Copyright 2001 The Intelligencer. Reprinted with permission.