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I took an herbal energy supplement that nearly killed me

Charlotte Hilton Andersen is the author of the book The Great Fitness Experiment: One Year of Trying Everything and runs the popular health and fitness website of the same name, where she tries out a new workout every month, specializing...

Banned "natural" supplements resurface with different names and put you at risk

A few years ago, I took what I thought was a simple, herbal supplement and ended up almost killing myself trying to run a personal best in a race, but the scary part is how much company I have. A national network of liver specialists warn that 20 percent of drug-related liver disease is thanks to dietary supplements. And the power to change these trends is in our hands, so why don't we use it?

I don't remember the end of my first half marathon, but I definitely remember the beginning: Lined up next to my best friend, waiting for the starting gun, I moaned about how I hadn't trained enough and how tired I was and how I was worried I might not finish until she finally interrupted me.

"Here," she said simply, handing me a large-ish pill and a packet of powder, "take these. They'll give you mega energy for the race. You'll be fine."

Like every good Millennial, I went through D.A.R.E. as a kid — I know not to take random drugs from people. "They're just herbal energy supplements I got at [insert big nutrition store]," she laughed, reassuring me that she took them all the time and never had any problems. And I trusted her — we were both moms, after all. Plus, I really really wanted to run my best race. It wouldn't be the first time my Type A perfectionist personality got me in trouble.

So, I swallowed the stuff and took off running a few minutes later. At first, everything seemed fine, but then I became aware of a strange, tingly feeling coming over me: my hands and feet felt numb, I started tripping and my thinking felt fragmented. But, the worst part was that my legs seemed possessed and suddenly I was sprinting through the pack. As my heart pounded and I gasped for breath, I knew I couldn't keep up that pace, but it seemed I couldn't stop either.

A half marathon — 13.1 miles — is a fairly long distance. For most of us, it means we'll be pounding the pavement for two hours or more. But, I wouldn't know personally because I can't really remember any of it. I remember throwing up in the bushes several times and yet still being possessed by that manic energy. When I crossed the finish line, I sat down until my friends found me. They said I was shaking uncontrollably, so they wrapped me in a blanket and took me home.

Once inside, I collapsed on the floor, crying to my husband that I'd never felt so awful in my whole life and asking him to take me to the ER. I fell asleep, right there on the floor, before he could. When I woke up, I was shaky for a solid 24 hours afterward.

The pills that nearly killed me

I didn't get many answers until a couple of years later when those particular products were pulled from the shelves because they contained dimethylamylamine (DMAA), a stimulant that is chemically similar to methamphetamine. The FDA issued a warning saying that DMAA had been associated with over 80 bad reactions and five deaths — and I could have been one of them. When I told my doctor how I'd felt during that race, he told me I was very lucky I'd vomited because it had probably saved my life by getting some of it out of my system. He left me with a stern warning to not ever do anything like that again, but it was unnecessary because I was already massively ashamed.

Let me be clear: I take full responsibility for my stupid decision to take something unknown. But, my story highlights a growing problem in the rapidly growing health industry. Because supplements are unregulated by the FDA, consumers never quite know what they are getting. In a 2013 report, an independent testing company found everything from prescription antidepressants to sibutramine (a banned weight loss drug) to full-on steroids in several weight loss or exercise supplements sold at popular stores nationwide — and the scariest part is that none of these things were on the label.

Even being found out doesn't stop some shady companies, as the The New York Times reported that many banned supplements quickly make their way back onto shelves under different names. "The new study, published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) found that out of more than two dozen supplements that were pulled from shelves after they were found to contain anabolic steroids or powerful prescription drugs, roughly two-thirds were back on the market a year later with the same illicit ingredients." Even worse, of these supplements fully two-thirds contained a banned pharmaceutical drug or steroid — unlabeled, of course.

When I originally wrote about my experience during that awful race, I got a lot of irate emails from people who were upset that my (admittedly) stupid decision was casting their favorite workout supplement in a bad light. They said that additional laws or FDA oversight would take away the only effective supplements they'd found (because, hey, steroids!) and that they needed every edge they could get.

My question to them was, and still is: Why? Why are we all so intent on being the strongest or the skinniest (or both) that we're willing to risk our lives? So what if you win your age group at your local race? So what if you beat your personal best on a deadlift? Aren't you enough on your own, unenhanced? I could maybe understand it if you were an Olympic athlete and two-tenths of a second was the difference between a life of fame or a life of ignominy. But, there are no medals for being an adult and not damaging your heart will get you a lot farther in life than any momentary high from "winning."

It's time supplements were regulated — if not by the FDA then at least by a nationally recognized, independent body. We need to recognize that just because something is "herbal" or "natural" doesn't mean it's safe, or even that what's on the label is what's in the bottle. But, it's more important that we ask ourselves why being our "very best" has become so important that we're willing to risk death for it.

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