Another Adulterated Supplement? No weigh(t)!

By Josh Bloom — Sep 22, 2015
Welcome to Bizarro World. While people are wearing gloves for fear of touching a cash register receipt, others are "supplementing" their diet with really nasty drugs that can be bought at any vitamin shop. Dr. Pieter Cohen and colleagues examine yohimbine supplements, and found just about what you'd expect: a bunch of crap.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 1.43.46 PMSo-called "dietary supplements" get a bad rap for (among other things) not working. If you'd like to get an expert opinion on supplements that don't work, we recommend (if you have a strong stomach) regular viewing of the Dr. OZ show.

To be fair, sometimes supplements actually do work. With a minor caveat: real drugs legal or otherwise are added to whatever stupid weed is in the bottle, and the next thing you know... Voila! You are losing weight, sometimes at great risk.

This is hardly new. "Herbal Viagra" worked quite well when real Viagra was added to whatever useless garbage was in the bottle. OxyElite Pro was a great weight loss supplement, with the minor downside of having illegal and dangerous amphetamine-like drugs added to the stuff. A "natural" cure for psoriasis was extremely effective but only when anti inflammatory steroid creams, exactly what the users were trying to avoid were added.

So, it should be no surprise that yet another dietary supplement (aka, unregulated drug) has popped up, this time in a "botanical," a subset of supplements that sound even cooler than the regular kind. And, how could a botanical, a term that conjures up visions of golden-haired virgins luxuriating in a warm bath of rose petals while being fed grapes, possibly harm anyone?

Well, they can.

Dr. Pieter Cohen, one of the leaders in the anti-fraud/supplement resistance movement, just published a short communication in Drug Testing and Analysis about supplements that have nasty things in them. In this case, the nasty thing is yohimbine, a member of the indole alkaloid family of chemicals and drugs.

Representative Indole Alkaloids

Chemical Use Source
Yohimbine Veterinary Yohimbe tree
Vincristine Cancer chemotherapy Madagascan Periwinkle
Physostigmine Alzheimer's, antidote for nerve gas, glaucoma Calabar bean
Serotonin Ubiquitous neurotransmitter --
Tryptophan Amino acid Protein
LSD Hallucinogenic drug Synthetic analog of lysergic acid (from ergot fungus)
Strychnine Rat poison Strychnos nux-vomica tree
Reserpine Antipsychotic, depression (little used-multiple. severe side effects) Indian snakeroot

Yohimbine, for reasons that I cannot fathom, is permitted to be sold as a dietary supplement, when in fact it's a drug, and a rather dangerous one at that, or what we call a "dirty drug." What that mans is that it hits multiple receptors, thus causing multiple pharmacological effects. Yohimbine, which primarily affects the central nervous system, does this with style. It will not only hit just about every receptor in your brain, but also the guy sitting next to you on the subway:

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 1.04.26 PM

Source: Wikipedia

Dr. Cohen and colleagues tested 49 brands of supplements that were labeled as containing yohimbine. Not surprisingly, the label had little to do with what was in the bottle. The amount of yohimbine in the bottle ranged from zero to 12 milligrams.

Of the 49 bottles, only 11 listed the amount of drug present, but this mattered little since the amount in the bottle ranged from 23-to-147 percent of the amount on the label. Perhaps worse, only two bottles provided accurate information about the dose and adverse effects.

The adverse effects, according to, from yohimbine are not trivial:

  • Elevation in blood pressure
  • Increase in heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Skin flushing
  • Allergic reactions (difficulty breathing; closing of the throat; swelling the lips, tongue, face, hives
  • Confusion
  • Tremors

So, once again, we have a drug being sold as a dietary supplement simply because it comes from a tree. And it's a really lousy drug. It treats just about nothing, and comes with an encyclopedia of side effects. And it is fair to ask: exactly what is it supplementing? Like you don't get enough Yohimbe tree bark in your normal diet?

And people are worried about touching cash register receipts for fear of getting traces of BPA on their hands, while others are gulping this stuff down. Or not. It may or may not even be in the bottle.

Anyone else see a few problems here?

Josh Bloom

Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science

Dr. Josh Bloom, the Director of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Science, comes from the world of drug discovery, where he did research for more than 20 years. He holds a Ph.D. in chemistry.

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