There’s another stimulant hiding in your supplements—oxilofrine.
In a nine-page report released Thursday morning, researchers from Cambridge Health Alliance reveal the science behind the banned stimulant and expose brands that are secretly hiding it in their supplements. The report comes just two days after the the Food and Drug Administration issued warning letters to seven companies whose supplements were found to contain oxilofrine.
Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the lead researcher on the nine-page report, says the problem is much worse than the FDA’s estimate. His report reveals at least 14 manufacturers who use the product, which has been shown to cause dangerous side effects. It’s the latest strike against the supplement industry—one whose unregulated products send 23,000 Americans to emergency rooms every year.
Oxilofrine is a stimulant that acts similarly to an amphetamine but has never been approved for consumption in the U.S. The drug was synthesized by European scientists in the 1930s to help treat low blood pressure. Also referred to as methylsynephrine, it works by stimulating the heart and increasing the blood pressure.
Considered unsafe for use in the U.S., it is also banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Its history of abuse began in 2009 when Flavia Oliveira, a Brazilian-American cyclist, tested positive for the drug—landing her a two-year suspension from the sport. In court, Oliveira argued that she had no knowledge that the supplement she was taking, “Hyperdrive 3.0+,” contained the drug—which convinced officials to grant her a reduced sentence of 18 months.
A similar story broke in 2013, when running phenomenons Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell both tested positive for the drug. Like Oliveira, they both claimed to have no knowledge that they were consuming something illegal. “I don’t have a sabotage story. I don’t have lies,” Gay told Reuters at the time. “I basically put my trust in someone and I was let down.”
Since 2009, at least six athletes have been caught taking the drug—most recently Red Sox pitching prospect Michael Kopech. Beyond the legal issues surrounding it, the drug has been associated with potentially serious long-term health problems, among them nausea, vomiting, agitation, and heart problems.
Motivated by the lack of regulation surrounding supplements, Cohen and his team designed a study to determine if oxilofrine was secretly present in supplements—and if so, how many.
Cohen searched the National Institute of Health’s Dietary Supplement Label Database and found 57 products with the word “methylsynephrine” on the label. Many of the supplements listed were no longer on the market, and others were unavailable, but of the 27 supplement brands the team did test for oxilofrine, 14 tested positive for the drug. Of those, just 15 percent listed the amount of the drug present, 75 percent of which were inaccurate.
While the drug has been studied on humans in small doses, there has been little research on the effects of a large amount of oxilofrine—which the researchers worried could include palpitations, arrhythmias, and other potentially lethal problems with the heart. Of specific concern to the researchers are children who, if exposed to the supplements, could unknowingly be taking more than triple the highest dose allowed for their age.
Cohen concedes that the study came with limitations, including a small sample size, but said the overall findings are a reflection of the dangerously unregulated supplement industry. “Supplements can be introduced into the market with zero oversight. The FDA is always in the position of playing catch-up and trying to remove illegal and dangerous products,” he told The Daily Beast. “The only way to remedy the situation is to require that products are registered with the FDA before they are sold.”
It’s not the first time Cohen has exposed problematic substances in supplements. A year ago, he published a similar report that found the amphetamine ß-methylphenylethylamine (BMPEA) was present in 11 supplements.
In the New England Journal of Medicine study that found supplements send 23,000 Americans to emergency departments every year, weight-loss and sports supplements were most commonly the cause. Now Cohen, who discovered oxilofrine in these very supplements, has one more reason for athletes to stay away.
“We have identified many potentially dangerous products that the FDA should have removed from stores years ago,” said Cohen about the products with oxilofrine. “In the meantime, consumers should be suspect of all sports and weight-loss supplements, as there’s no way to know which ones contain potent, illegal drugs.”