What Lamar Odom's Overdose Can Teach You About the Dangers of Herbal Supplements

October 20th 2015

Aron Macarow

Former NBA Lakers forward Lamar Odom was found unresponsive last week with pink fluid coming from his nose and mouth in Crystal, Nevada, according to reports. He tested positive for cocaine, but the basketball star's collapse is allegedly linked to Reload, an herbal supplement marketed for increased energy and erectile dysfunction.

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Odom apparently left the hospital early Tuesday with Khloe Kardashian to begin rehabilitation in Los Angeles, Daily Beast reports.

Although we don't yet know for certain what caused Odom's medical breakdown, if it was the herbal supplement, we do know that his experience wasn't an isolated case. The Food and Drug Administration previously warned consumer not to purchase Reload—the organization issued a letter in 2013 because the product contained a non-listed pharmaceutical ingredient which could be dangerous—and a new report from the New England Journal of Medicine shows that other herbal products may not be as safe as we previously assumed either.

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A bigger problem than expected

The study, released this week, estimates that supplements cause 23,000 emergency room visits every year in the U.S. More than 2,000 of them are serious enough to require hospitalization—and 1-in-4 of all incidents occurred among millenials (ages 20 to 34), half of whom were taking herbal products marketed for weight loss or energy enhancement.

Dr. Pieter Cohen, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who was not involved with the research, called the results "very disheartening."

"What we’re seeing from this study is that the system has failed. It’s failing to protect consumers from very serious harms," said Cohen in an interview Wednesday with the New York Times.

It also means that what happened to Odom may be more typical than we realize. Widely reported because of his celebrity, Odom at 35 isn't that far afield from the study's findings, if investigators do determine that Reload is to blame.

Who regulates herbal supplements?

The FDA is the top watchdog over the dietary supplement market, and the industry is big business at $32 billion a year, with about half of Americans reporting use of herbal supplements.

Despite this, the FDA only has limited control over these products, treating them like food, not drugs, because of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. There's little oversight, as no one checks to ensure that manufacturers are truthful about the contents or the claims of their products. And there are currently no requirements to report the amount of any ingredient in a particular supplement or to warn consumer about known side effects.

What safeguards are in place?

Although there are some exceptions, dietary supplements are generally only allowed to contain ingredients that were on the market before 1994 or are part of the food supply.

Supplements can also be removed from the market, but the FDA must first prove that the product isn't safe. This means that products are assumed safe and sold to the public until proven otherwise, rather than tested for safety and then released on the market, which is the process for pharmaceuticals.

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This sounds problematic because it is

But supplements may also not be as dangerous as some would have you believe. Herbal remedies may have sent 23,000 individuals to the emergency room annually in the new study, but prescription drugs are responsible for nearly 30 times as many trips to the ER each year.

Still, clearly more oversight is needed. In April 2015, a group of state attorneys general called on Congress to give the FDA more power to regulate the supplement marketplace. Until change comes, you can follow the Mayo Clinic's advice: Use caution, don't exceed the recommended dosage and tell your doctor what you're taking. Your life may depend on it.