One evening in the fall of 2006 forever altered the way I view nutrition in the strength and conditioning world. While driving to fill-up my car with gas—not more than a mile from my home—I began to experience what felt like two claws seeping their talons into the center of my sternum, followed by a resting heart rate that soared to more than 150 beats per minute. My body was uncontrollably fighting to control an inevitable internal tailspin. But it was losing.
Minutes later, after being evaluated by a medically savvy friend, I was rushed to a local New York hospital for evaluation. I clearly remember the question asked to me by one of the medical professionals: “Are you taking any supplements for working out?”
I admitted to ingesting the recommended loading doses of pure creatine monohydrate—what’s sometimes thought to be one of the safest workout supplements—in the days prior to my medical condition.
After several blood tests, rounds of questioning, volcano-like blood pressure and lightheadedness that made a gargantuan hangover seem tolerable, it was determined that my condition was ultimately caused by toxicity, due to an excess of creatine in my system. This ailment caused an osmotic shift in the blood, leading to a flushing of essential electrolytes, especially cardiac-reliant potassium. Simply, I was falling into metabolic shock. Hard. And fast.
I was intravenously loaded with bags of electrolytes and fluids until the condition ultimately reversed itself. There were weeks of testing that followed, including a stress test, brain scan (shockingly, yes, they found one inside my cranium) and echocardiogram, but this experience led me in one direction—education. To learn more about the in-depth details of the multi-billion dollar nutritional and dietary supplement industry, along with its safety and research.
Even though there are those who have chosen to stay completely away from supplementation, many have opted to dabble with pills, powders and liquids in hope of productive and positive outcomes. I was one of those lab rats.
My experience with creatine toxicity rag-dolled me into a world of research. I attempted to find out the potential dangers—and/or benefits—of dietary supplementation. But because of 1994’s Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which made the Food and Drug Administration virtually powerless in the testing and regulation of nutritional and dietary supplements, it is difficult to have a clear understanding of their true effects.
Because of DSHEA, the FDA has very little say in the testing and setting of quality standards of dietary supplements. The manufacturers have no requirements to provide any information to FDA before their product is marketed, leaving those who try these substances to be left in a state of the unknown. Translation: If you walk in the dark without a nightlight, there’s a solid chance you might stub your toe.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Amy Eichner, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s Special Advisor on Drugs and Supplements. Dr. Eichner explains that even though nutritional and dietary supplements are legally intended to supplement the diet, extreme caution should be exercised with their use. “We know that there are supplement products in the marketplace today—whether for weight loss, body building, energy or pre-workout—that are contaminated or tainted with synthetic steroids, stimulants and experimental substances,” she says. “Many consumers falsely believe that there is quality control or oversight of these products prior to them reaching the shelves.”
Since that fateful night a decade ago, I believe that I’ve molded into a smarter and wiser fitness fanatic, and have tried to instill the same in those around me. Not everyone will have the same experience I did with creatine or other supplements, but I feel obligated to share my story with others.
While dietary supplementation may still be appropriate in a handful of situations, such as medical-related ailments and uncontrollable dietary deficiencies, I believe a large part of the physically-motivated population can achieve their goals by concentrating more heavily on reliable dietary correction—increasing or decreasing the consumption of whole food products. Not everything can be found in a bottle.