National | The latest on supplements, high blood pressure and more

Issue: "George W. Bush: Gut check," April 24, 2004


Now that the controversial supplement ephedra is off store shelves, the FDA is focusing on a new target: a steroid-like substance called Andro. Regulators want its manufacturers to either prove its safety or withdraw it.

Andro is short for androstenedione, a chemical the body uses to make testosterone and estrogen. It gained notoriety as a muscle builder in 1998, when Mark McGwire used it and hit 70 home runs.

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FDA Commissioner Mark McClellan said that anyone who takes enough Andro to improve athletic performance risks "potentially irreversible health consequences." Regulators say that men taking Andro risk developing female characteristics (and vice versa)-and other side effects may include impotence and blood clots.

Right now, consumers can buy Andro over the counter as a dietary supplement, although a Senate bill backed by Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) would reclassify it as a controlled substance.

Supplement maker TwinLab, which claims ownership of the brand name "Andro," disagrees with the FDA warning, saying its "androstenedione products are safe and effective if used as directed." Yet the company also plans to take its Andro Fuel product off the market once existing supplies run out.


Researchers at the University of Wisconsin say they've found a new group at risk for high blood pressure: people with a large proportion of white blood cells. They say it apparently occurs independently of smoking and other factors.

A person's white blood cells may be elevated due to infection, inflammation of tissue, or certain types of cancer. It can also be a response to stress or certain medications. A complete blood count test can often spot such anomalies.

The National Institutes of Health definition of hypertension is blood pressure at 140/90 or more. It usually has no symptoms and is linked to numerous health problems from strokes and heart attacks to dementia and bone loss. (A new category called "prehypertensive" refers to those at 120/80 or higher who are therefore at risk for high blood pressure.)

An estimated 50 million Americans are hypertensive. Over half of them take special medication, but about one-third are said to be unaware of the problem. Blacks are more likely to have high blood pressure than whites.

Experts generally recommend losing excess weight, along with exercise and limited use of sodium and alcohol, to help control blood pressure. They also recommend a low-fat diet rich in potassium, magnesium, and calcium.


A new oral HIV test called OraQuick gives results in 20 minutes, which makes testing easier and eliminates the need to collect a drop of blood. Health screeners need only wipe a cotton swab around the mouth and then insert it into the device. Manufacturer OraSure Technologies won FDA approval late last month and health officials concluded that OraQuick is more than 99 percent accurate.

A new temporary artificial heart may help keep dying patients alive long enough to receive a traditional heart transplant. The CardioWest device is risky; doctors must cut out half of the diseased heart before implantation-and the recipient faces the possibility of frightening side effects, such as infection, bleeding, and stroke, while hooked up to a washing-machine-sized power generator. Nevertheless, manufacturer SynCardia Systems says the invention will buy some time for end-stage patients.

Numerous food labels may change once the FDA determines rules for products billed as "low-carb" or "reduced-carb." The Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade group representing most major brands, wants the low-carb threshold defined as 9 grams of carbohydrates in a typical 100-gram serving of food.

Modest exercise can boost a woman's likelihood of surviving breast cancer by one-quarter to one-half, according to a presentation to the American Association for Cancer Research. Dr. Michelle Holmes of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston concluded that even a daily half-hour walk can improve quality of life.


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