The use of nutritional supplements has become quite prevalent in our society today, especially among young athletes involved in competitive sports. Our awareness has recently been heightened by the death of Baltimore Oriole’s pitcher Steve Bechler, who took Xenadrine, an over-the-counter drug containing ephedrine. Questions once again have been raised regarding supplement use among athletes and their inherent dangers. This has been an ongoing issue for years, but unfortunately it takes the death of a professional athlete for many to realize the serious nature of the problem.

It was proven that ephedra, otherwise known as the herb Ma Huang, was in Bechler’s system and did contribute to his death. Many athletes have taken this as a quick and easy way to lose weight.

However, it is a stimulant and its dangerous side effects include high blood pressure, seizures and heart attacks. Since its inception on the market, 80 deaths have been linked to this drug, and the numbers will probably continue to rise.

Because these products are not considered drugs, they do not have to go through the rigorous clinical testing and eventual approval by the FDA. The FDA simply cannot keep up with the recent explosion of these over-the-counter supplements. As a result, they are marketed as miracle weight loss, weight gain and performance enhancers. This is simply not true, as these products such as Xenadrine have not been proven scientifically to do what they claim. Many now claim to be ephedrine-free, however they may contain several other substances, which may result in a positive in a drug test.

A recent study published in 2001 stated that approximately 15 percent of males aged 14 – 19 years in upstate New York used some type of “performance enhancing” sport supplement. The more common ones include creatine and DHEA, designed to promote muscle growth and bulk. There are a number of serious implications with young athletes taking these products in an attempt to gain an edge on their opponent or peer. Side effects to creatine use include muscle cramping/tears, dehydration, headaches, stunted growth and kidney failure.

There is also cause for concern due to the unknown. It is not known what the long-term effects may be on still-developing tissues such as bone, liver and kidney. For these reasons, it has been strongly recommended by the medical community not to take these products.

The use of performance-enhancing substances has long been a problem at the professional and Olympic levels of sport, spurring several controversies and scandals.

So what is being done about it? Well, randomized drug testing and banning of these dangerous products have been pretty much the standard in trying to curb these unhealthy practices. Unfortunately, there will always be athletes that fly under the radar and outsmart the drug testers or who continue to use a supplement even though it is banned.

Some will get caught and some won’t. Some may endure chronic problems or even die as a result. The NCAA, NFL and NBA have banned a variety of substances, but there will always be a certain percentage of athletes that ignore the warnings and continue to use potentially harmful products in attempt to get ahead.

So where do we go from here then? Well as I see it, you will probably never prevent every athlete from taking supplements, but there is something we can do that should reduce this problem. We need to monitor this problem more closely at the secondary and collegiate educational settings. This is where it starts and currently, we as educators and health care providers are quite frankly doing a poor job of informing our athletes on the proper use and misuse of nutritional supplements. We need to provide accurate information to the student athlete in order that they can make the best choices for their health.

We do not condone the use of sports-enhancing supplements or drugs for our athletes at UR. We recommend and believe that following sound nutritional practices combined with regular exercise is the best way to obtain peak performance. This has been proven scientifically, but the research on sports supplements remains equivocal.

To quote Justin Galloway, a UR varsity football player, on the use of these products, “For some athletes the risks don’t outweigh the benefits, but for me the benefits don’t outweigh the risks.” I think that says it all.

Steckley is a certified UR athletic trainer and can be reached at

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