Remember ephedra? The herbal alkaloid was the cornerstone of the modern diet pill market, with a reported billion dollars of annual sales before it was banned in 2004 because of associations with thousands of side effects and anywhere from 18 to 159 deaths including two professional sports athletes.
Ephedra has many effects related to stimulating metabolism and as a heat-generating fat burner. It increases heart rate and blood pressure and expands bronchial tubes, which make breathing easier. Its original use in Chinese medicine was for treating asthma.
Originally marketed to sports enthusiasts, it later shifted to the more lucrative weight-loss market. As diet pills, ephedra was usually combined with caffeine and aspirin. Studies showed people lost about two pounds per month on ephedra. Scientists noted that when ephedra doses were taken at less than 90mg/day, all would be well. But of course when the wedding was three months out or beach season was upon us, girls would routinely double-down on ephedra to shed that cellulite faster.
You could say that ephedra was a girl’s best friend.
It wasn’t until pro baseball pitcher Steve Bechler died of heat stroke during spring training in 2003, with an autopsy showing ephedra in his system, that public pressure was enough for the FDA to ban the blockbuster. By early in 2004, ephedra was gone.
The Whitney Houston connection
Which brings us to America’s current sweetheart-cum-tragedy. Who didn’t choke up during Whitney Houston’s off-the-charts rendition of the national anthem at Super Bowl XXV, made all the more poignant as it was right after the start of the first Iraq war, replete with obligatory F-16 military jet flyover?
Whitney, as we all know, died in a hotel bathtub this week. But the reason she drowned was not because she didn’t know how to swim. It was because, according to reports, she had in her system a combination of Valium, Xanax, Lorazepam and sleeping meds.
A colleague here in the office said he received texts from every girl he knows as soon as word of Whitney’s passing hit the wires.
You could say that Whitney Houston was a girl’s best friend. Her voice was dynamite, inspirational even.
Any death from any means is a tragedy. I’ve lost family members to old age and accident, and complete strangers pass on every single day. But when celebrities die, the mass media reminds us all of the great work said celeb brought to our world on behalf of our entertainment. The Bodyguard was on my local Spanish-language station last night, and I’m pretty sure it was not listed in the monthly TV Guide for February. Gracias.
My point is, when two professional athletes—we can call them celebrities—died from an apparent overdose of the dietary supplement ephedra, the humble herbal was summarily banned from any public consumption.
Two American soldiers—in our culture, these, too, count as celebritie—died from heart attacks, and traces of the supplement DMAA was found in their bloodstreams. Hardly an indictment, yet that supplement is currently off military exchange store shelves.
Pharmaceuticals more dangerous than supplements
But Whitney Houston was only the latest in a long line of celebrities to die from pharmaceutical drugs. I can think of Michael Jackson, Heath Ledger, Anna Nicole Smith and Elvis Presley off the top of my head.
In fact, the leading cause of accidental deaths in America is poisonings, and 90 percent of poisonings are of the pharmaceutical persuasion. You can add Whitney to that list. In 1999, there were 4,000 such deaths. In 2008, that number escalated to 15,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So there’s this latter-day epidemic of pharmaceutical overdoses. And this is from a supposededly regulated industry?
And that’s not even including the 106,000 people who die in American hospitals every year from properly prescribed pharmaceuticals in the most controlled, supervised environment known to man, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Properly prescribed pharmaceuticals are the sixth-leading cause of death in America. And, of course, that doesn’t count the likes of the hallowed Whitney.
And nary a peep about banning any of the FDA-approved drugs in the wake of these tragic deaths.
So why aren't more pharmaceuticals recalled?
Perhaps that is the greatest indictment of the FDA we have: The FDA has to approve drugs before they hit shelves, and people die. But the FDA does not have to approve supplements before they hit shelves, and, by and large, people live, prosper even.
In fact, between 2007 and 2010, the FDA received a total of 4,194 serious adverse events reports associated with dietary supplements. In 2010 alone, FDA received more than 471,000 reports of serious adverse events related to drugs and vaccines—of this number, nearly 83,000 were deaths. Which just goes to show the wide margin of safety that supplements enjoy.
Okay, so maybe I’m being a little melodramatic. After all, prescription drugs can quickly and effectively alter the body’s biochemistry. They can make illnesses abate rapidly. They can save lives.
But supplements can, too. They just work more slowly to reorient the body in a more healthful manner. After all, people don’t get high cholesterol levels because they are deficient in statin drugs. But they do get scurvy from too little vitamin C.
In fact, most chronic degenerative diseases occur because of too few nutrients, along with a dollop of laziness to do anything about it. After all, evolution does not occur overnight, and shifting one’s lifestyle toward a more optimal direction takes a slow combination of a number of factors, including being more healthfully aware of the things you put in your mouth. In that list goes pharmaceutical, supplement and leafy green vegetable alike.