Before any study or article about health supplements, no matter what they are, a disclaimer should be necessary. Specifically, this one: unless directed by a clinical practitioner, do not take supplements. At best, they are a waste of your money. At worse, they can cause you harm, as the 23,000 Americans taking emergency hospitals visits per year can attest to.
The latest supplement in the spotlight is higenamine, a stimulant with cardiovascular properties. It also happens to be prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but it’s still an ingredient in a variety of dietary supplements, many of which are sold in the US. It has also never been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A new Clinical Toxicology paper, led by Harvard Medical School researchers, notes that there’s been a bit of a dearth of research on it in the US, pointing to clinical trials taking place in China instead. They decided to see if they could at least ascertain how much of the compound consumers may be taking through a range of supplements, usually as a sports energy supplement or for weight loss.
They found that it's far more than you might think; consequently, they advise people to think twice before taking them.
The team looked at 24 products labeled as containing higenamine, or one of its several synonyms. They found that dosages of up to 62 milligrams per serving of the stimulant were found in these supplements. This works out to be up to 110 milligrams per day when following the recommended serving sizes on the label – potentially more, seeing as five products were inaccurately labeled as to how much higenamine they contained.
This is only the third study where the amount of higenamine was quantified in supplements in this way. So what do these findings mean?
The paper doesn’t itself look into the adverse effects of taking higenamine, but those aforementioned clinical trials have. They only looked at the effects of having 2.5- and 5-milligram doses of higenamine, received intravenously, however – but it was shown to consistently increase heart rate, and have a range of effects on blood pressure.
Side effects were registered too, from heart palpitations, headaches, shortness of breath (dyspnea), and more. Taking 10-20 times that amount through unregulated supplements is, perhaps, not ideal.
The authors also point to two studies funded by a supplement manufacturer that purport to show that such higenamine supplements are safe. However, both studies are deeply flawed, featuring a low number of participants, missing information about supplement quantities, and skewed data sets.
The team notes that the supplements they studied only existed prior to the WADA ban, and that the quantity of higenamine may vary with time. Saying that, the number of supplements said to contain the compound remain the same post-ban, and their analysis suggests the doses in them are fairly high. Some botanical supplements may contain the ingredient without even listing it on the bottle.
With all that in mind, then, they come to a clearly sensible conclusion: it’s unclear how safe or unsafe higenamine is, but it certainly seems to affect the heart at low doses, so it’s best not to take them. Forget the damage it could do to your career as an athlete; they could perhaps harm your health too.
“We’re urging competitive and amateur athletes, as well as general consumers, to think twice before consuming a product that contains higenamine,” study co-author John Travis, a senior research scientist at National Sanitation Foundation International, explained in a statement.
“There is often no way for a consumer to know how much higenamine is actually in the product they are taking.”