Banned substance taken by Blue Jays prospect Marcus Stroman cause for concern

Blue Jays pitching prospect Marcus Stroman is the most recent in a disturbingly long string of professional and amateur athletes whose careers have been unhinged by methylhexaneamine, a potentially dangerous stimulant found in over-the-counter dietary supplements.

Stroman, a 21-year-old out of Duke University, selected 22nd overall by Toronto in the June amateur draft, was suspended 50 games by Major League Baseball on Wednesday after it came to light that he had tested positive for the stimulant, one of 56 banned under MLB’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

Naive athletes such as Stroman, encompassing nearly every sport imaginable, from tennis to hurdling, are the unfortunate patsies in the unconscionably convoluted cat-and-mouse game being played between government health and drug agencies and supplement manufacturers, layered thicker than a Spanish onion.

Only an obtuse observer would claim that banned athletes share no culpability for their actions, but as performance trainers such as Matt Nichol know all too well, the athletes are also scapegoats, in too many instances uninformed of how scarily unregulated the supplement and nutrition product industry truly is.

“At the end of the day, you are ultimately responsible for what goes into your body,” said Nichol, a former strength and conditioning coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs, a reputable trainer of professional athletes and the chief product formulator and co-founder of BioSteel sports supplement.

“But, as I felt working for seven years with a National Hockey League team, I didn’t think it was good enough, I thought it was a cop out, to just say the guys have to police themselves. It’s not men’s league hockey. There’s millions of dollars at stake. There are careers at stake. You’re one injury away, or one bad shift away from being sent down to the minors or losing your job.

“Guys are looking for an edge.”

And in search of that edge, athletes ignorantly turn to those around them for advice, in the end ingesting largely unregulated products that claim to enhance workouts or burn fat. If only they had decided to harness the plethora of readily available resources, suspensions and unnecessary health risks could easily be avoided.

But athletes are human. They trust. They assume. They ignore.

Methylhexaneamine is more commonly known as DMAA, but is often labelled under other pseudonyms such as 1,3-dimethylpentylamine or Geranamine. In some supplements, it may not be listed at all.

It is the latest eyebrow-raising performance enhancer to go mainstream, following in the footsteps of ephedra and androstenedione (andro), both banned by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2004.

In 2003, attorneys claimed that ephedra, also a stimulant, played a large part in the death of Korey Stringer, a Minnesota Vikings lineman who succumbed to heatstroke during the team’s 2001 training camp. Andro, a steroid precursor, was the drug of choice for Mark McGwire when the former St. Louis Cardinals slugger broke Roger Maris’ single-season home run record in 1998.

The ingestion of DMAA by drug-tested athletes is rampant. Former world boxing champion Enzo Maccarinelli received a six-month ban after a positive test in July; junior hockey player Daniel Broussard of the Ottawa 67’s was handed an eight-game leave by the Canadian Hockey League in January; and female hurdler Ghfran Almouhamad of Syria was booted from the recent London Olympics after a positive test result.

In October 2010, nine Australian athletes tested positive for the stimulant, the same month that Nigerian 100-metre runner Osayemi Oludamola was stripped of her Commonwealth Games gold medal after DMAA was detected in her voluntary sample. Eleven Indian athletes in various sports were also caught before those Games, which were held in Delhi.

According to Dr. Don Catlin, founder of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory in 1982 and of the non-profit organization Anti-Doping Research, Inc., in 2005, these reports only begin to scratch the surface.

“It was the drug that caused that most positives in WADA’s system two years ago,” Dr. Catlin said of the World Anti-Doping Agency. “It started low, maybe 30 a year, then it was 50, then a couple hundred a year. That tells you something is really going on with that drug.”

In June, The Chicago Tribune, citing the Nutrition Business Journal, reported more than $100-million in sales of DMAA-instilled supplements in the U.S. for the year 2011.

DMAA’s roots reach back to the 1940s, when it was patented as pharmaceutical product for nasal decongestion by Eli Lilly and Company. But, by the early ’70s it had gone dormant. Then suddenly, in 2004, the infamous chemist Patrick Arnold reintroduced the stimulant to the market, this time as a supplement-based product.

Soon after, supplements listing DMAA as an ingredient — by one name or another — became regular fixtures at thousands of retail health stores across the globe.

Arnold was responsible for developing previously undetectable steroids such as “the clear,” the anabolic steroid that eventually led U.S. federal agents to unearth the illegal drug-distribution ring at the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) in 2003. Arnold was sentenced to three months in prison for his role in the scandal.


Arnold’s ability to bring DMAA to the market with ease, and how it remarkably flourished quickly thereafter, shows both how lax government restrictions are on dietary supplements, and the power of the industry’s lobbyists.

There is a loophole, known officially and, by its opponents, derisively, as the FDA’s Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Essentially, any dietary supplement can be legally sold to consumers, and does not require pre-market approval, as long as its producers can show it was derived from a naturally occurring substance, and was sold prior to Oct. 15, 1994.

A new dietary ingredient such as a vitamin or amino acid not marketed in the United States in a dietary supplement before 1994, requires review before it can be sold and the firm must provide the FDA with evidence to substantiate safety and effectiveness before it goes to market.

In the case of DMAA, Arnold’s claim was that it was derived from geranium plants and oils, relying on a single Chinese study — published in 1996 in a since-shuttered medical journal — to assert its organic heritage. Arnold patented the stimulant as Geranamine, avoiding pre-market review by asserting DMAA was already in products marketed prior to 1994, characterizing it as a natural derivative of geranium.

“Theoretically, they were saying it was coming from geranium oil,” said Professor Christiane Ayotte, director of WADA’s Montreal laboratory. “Which is totally untrue. There is no methylhexaneamine in pure geranium oil.”

No study since, including those conducted by the certification agency NSF International or the Journal of Analytical Toxicology (co-authored by the University of Mississippi and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency) has found detectable levels of DMAA in geranium.

Slowly, but surely, government agencies and independent health organizations caught onto the ruse, and today, the sun is setting rapidly on DMAA’s legality.

In December 2011, the deaths of two U.S. soldiers were linked to the use of exercise supplements containing DMAA, prompting the military to recall all products found to contain the stimulant from all military base stores.

Last summer, Health Canada banned its use from all supplements, and recently Australia and New Zealand followed suit. DMAA has been on WADA’s list of substances banned for in-competition use since 2010.

A popular weightlifting supplement, Jack3D, was barred in Britain earlier this week after the U.K.’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency became concerned with its inclusion of DMAA, and potentially lethal side effects.

The stimulant has also been prohibited by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

“It’s dangerous,” Ayotte said. “It’s a stimulant, and stimulants are powerful. It increases heartbeat. Some people with sensitivity do not always know in advance that they have a condition that would put them at risk for developing side effects. And furthermore, if you mix this with, let’s say, caffeine drinks, like say Red Bull, you are already stimulated by something that contains a lot of caffeine. So you may be adding different stimulants from different sources, and then you are definitely at risk.”

In April, the FDA sent out a news release challenging the marketing of products containing DMAA, citing a lack of safety evidence. The warning cited 10 specific manufacturers, including USP Labs LLC, the maker of Jack3D. Letters sent to each organization in question accused them of marketing products never vetted by the FDA.

DMAA should have been classified as a new dietary ingredient, requiring submission of a notification at least 75 days prior to marketing. Additionally, the companies were warned that synthetically produced DMAA is not a dietary ingredient whatsoever, and is therefore ineligible to be embedded in dietary supplements.

But products containing the stimulant — reportedly proven to narrow blood vessels and arteries, resulting in possible heart attacks — are as of today still available at local health product stores across the United States — the type of stores where Marcus Stroman claims to have purchased a supplement that triggered his positive drug test.

“It takes a long time to get things out of supplements,” Dr. Catlin said. “It can be done, but it’s difficult.”

In February, James Klein, CEO of supplement company ErgoGenix, told that he is anticipating a ban in the U.S., and that his organization had already replaced the stimulant with a “better solution.”

Just like tobacco and firearms, the strength of the supplement lobby should not be understated. More than half of adults in the U.S. use dietary supplements, according to NSF International, valuing the U.S. industry at US$28-billion as of 2010.

Utah is home to many of the country’s top supplement producers, which are reportedly earning US$7-billion in annual revenue in the state alone. Republican Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah has spent decades championing the supplement industry in Washington, and spearheaded the 1994 FDA legislation. The New York Times reported last June that, “many public health experts argue that in his advocacy, Mr. Hatch has hindered regulators from preventing dangerous products from being put on the market, including supplements that are illegally spiked with steroids or other unapproved drugs.”

Retailers are the other big beneficiaries of the supplement boom, most notably GNC Holdings, Inc., a publically traded retailer of health products with more than 7,700 stores and more than US$2-billion in annual revenue.

Ed Wyszumiala, general manager of dietary supplements programs at NSF International, would appreciate if retailers, big and small, would share some of the responsibility as sellers of potentially harmful substances.

“For GNC’s private-label product brands, none of the products that they’ve ever marketed, in either their weight loss, or bodybuilding, or pre-workout categories, have ever contained DMAA. But they sure are willing to sell a ton of [externally manufactured] products that are marketed there. They have been very bullish on the DMAA products.

“Just recently, they actually started to back away and lower their positioning on DMAA, to basically state, ‘We are working with companies on reformulation.’ They’ve actually started to back away from the defence of this ingredient.

“But they’re just one retailer.”

In response to inquiry regarding its handling of DMAA-related supplements, managed through the firm’s public relations representative, GNC stated that it is fully compliant with regulatory guidelines in the markets in which its products are sold.

“We believe that it is an athlete’s responsibility to conform to the rules and regulations of his or her league or sport,” the company said in a emailed statement regarding the recent rash of suspensions related to DMAA consumption.

“GNC is simply the retailer and, like all retailers, relies upon the representations and contractual warranties made by the vendor that the products are safe and compliant with all applicable laws and regulations.”

Consumers, and especially drug-tested athletes, need to realize that buying an over-the-counter supplement is nothing like buying a car or a package of flu medication. Assuming that ingredients contained in pills and powders are both healthy and properly regulated is a dangerous game.

Nichol, a performance trainer for many pro athletes, created the sports supplement BioSteel with these exact concerns in mind.

“The problem does not lie with these other supplement companies,” Nichol said. “They’ve never claimed that drug-free athletes would be safe using their products. It’s buyer beware. This is the problem with the entire industry, that unless your product is drug tested by a third party, how do people know what is in the product? And you have no assurance that the product is safe.”

Getting BioSteel approved by NSF International, HFL Sport Science and Health Canada was both costly and time consuming, said Nichol, but without those seals of approval, he cannot conscionably recommend and promote his product to professional athletes.

“This is why we do it,” he said. “So guys can confidently know that when they use these products, they are safe … They don’t think about that, they don’t worry about that.

“These guys, they are the top one-tenth of one per cent of the population with their very specific skill set in whatever their sport may be. They are completely consumed and focused on trying to be the best they can be in their sport. In this young guy’s case [Stroman], it’s baseball. I don’t know anything about him, but these guys don’t have time to sit and figure it out. They need someone to tell them what to use and what not to use.”

Education for athletes and regular consumers is easily accessible. Baseball’s drug prevention program clearly states the rules and substances players need to abide by in order to remain eligible. Players are told to never ingest supplements without going through the appropriate channels, and avoid products not prescribed to them by team doctors and training staff.

The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) has been warning the general public about DMAA for several years, especially how it can be listed under various aliases on labels, and the names of specific over-the-counter products that may contain the widely-banned stimulant.

“However, even if none of these ingredients are listed on the label, there remains the real risk of a positive test,” CCES warned athletes and support personnel in a March press release listing supplements to avoid.

NSF International has gone to great lengths to keep the public informed. It has even created a mobile phone app that makes it easier for consumers to determine whether or not a health product has earned its certification. NSF has a working relationship with Major League Baseball through its Certified for Sport Program, including toxicology review and facility inspection for participating manufacturers.

“We’ve been trying to create these educational tools,” Wyszumiala said. “They have to understand, that just because something is on the shelf and labelled, even if it goes through pre-market approval, no one is doing a lot of market surveillance testing on that product. So, if you wanted to create a spiked and adulterated product and throw it on the market, there’s very, very little as it relates to market oversight and testing to test that.

“It’s very scary. It’s a public health concern.”

DMAA’s days appear numbered, as even the largest consumer market in the world cannot hold on as the last bastion of this hazardous stimulant for much longer.

“Even the trade associations here in the U.S. have been very, very quiet, and haven’t taken any position on DMAA,” Wyszumiala said. “It’s my understanding in talking with the different associations, I think everyone would be very happy if DMAA would just be banned and go away. Because all it is going to be is a lightning rod for new regulations. It’s a bad ingredient to say, ‘Here is the ingredient we want to try to defend,’ when you have serious adverse events associated with it, including deaths.

“This is a health and wellness industry, and deaths are bad for business.”

But DMAA’s replacement is already in the works, Ayotte said. It is a never-ending cycle in which chemists formulate new compounds for the industry, and regulators are constantly playing catch-up.

“Already they found the next one,” she said. “DMAA is now replaced by methylphenylethylamine. There are already two or three cases in the world. The structure of the molecule is slightly altered, so it’s not yet on the list of banned ingredients.

“People are ignorant. It’s no better than 200 years ago for snake oil.”

There will always be those who intentionally cheat, putting both their health and careers at risk. Others are just as willing to ingest supplements promising more energy, substantial weight loss or inflated biceps, either missing the obvious warning signs or ignoring them altogether.

Professional athletes in particular will forever be seeking that edge, skirting the line between fair and foul in the process. While they should always seek guidance before taking supplements, many are just kids, making too many assumptions and asking too few questions.

“People trust our government agencies and regulatory agencies, so we think that if it’s there, it’s not only safe, it works,” Ayotte said. “So that is why we say to people, ‘You better be educated.’ ” (source National Post)