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Abuse of unapproved anxiety drug phenibut on the rise

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A growing number of Americans may be having serious reactions after taking phenibut — an unapproved anxiety drug sold in some dietary supplements.

That’s the finding of a new study looking at calls to U.S. poison control centers. The numbers are not huge: Between 2009 and 2019, there were 1,320 calls related to phenibut.

But there was a sharp rise beginning in 2015, researchers found — going from a handful of calls each year to between 300 and 400 in 2018 and 2019.

More worrisome, the effects were sometimes life-threatening or fatal, said researcher Janessa Graves, an associate professor at Washington State University.

Overall, 80 people fell into comas and three died. Often, they had taken other substances as well. But even in cases where phenibut was used alone, 10% resulted in serious effects — including one death.

“This is reason for concern,” Graves said. “[Phenibut] is easily accessible, and it may be becoming more popular.”

The findings were published Sept. 4 in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Originally developed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, phenibut was given to cosmonauts, with the aim of combating anxiety and insomnia. It has never been an approved drug in the United States, but it is present in some dietary supplements marketed for enhancing mood and brain power.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled phenibut is not a dietary ingredient and cannot be listed as such in dietary supplements. But phenibut supplements are widely available online, Graves noted.

There have also been reports of people abusing the drug for euphoric effects. A recent study of Minnesota poison centers found that in nearly half of calls related to phenibut, the person had used it with “abuse as the reason.”

The drug is similar to a brain chemical called GABA, which has a calming effect on the central nervous system. That can also cause side effects like sedation, reduced levels of consciousness and depressed breathing.

Previous research has uncovered signs that phenibut use is trending upward in the United States, Graves said. So her team tried to get a bigger picture, by analyzing a national database on calls to poison control centers.

From 2009 to 2014, they found there was a small number of calls each year related to “phenygam” or 4-amino-3-phenylbutyric acid — alternative names for phenibut.

Starting in 2015, poison control centers were able to use the term “phenibut.” After that, there was a steady, steep rise in calls related to the drug.

It’s not clear how much of that could be related to rising popularity, Graves said.

Based on internet search trends, public interest in phenibut has remained fairly stable in the past several years, said Pat Aussem, of the nonprofit Partnership to End Addiction.

“That said,” she added, “the sharp rise in calls to poison control centers is concerning, and may be attributable to people searching for and using anti-anxiety supplements without knowing their safety profiles.”

Consumers should not assume that dietary supplements are “safe,” stressed Aussem, who was not involved in the study.

She said phenibut would be particularly dangerous in combination with other substances that depress the central nervous system — including alcohol, opioids or benzodiazepines, like Xanax or Ativan.

In this study, 40% of adults and 30% of people under age 18 had used phenibut with other substances.

The findings highlight a bigger issue, according to Dr. Peter Lurie, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

In the United States, dietary supplements are largely unregulated, Lurie said, and the FDA has limited resources to take action against companies that put unapproved drugs into supplements — or make unproven health claims.

The CSPI recently urged the FDA to take stronger steps against manufacturers and stores that sell supplements with an unapproved antidepressant called tianeptine.

The FDA has sent warning letters to a number of U.S. companies that market tianeptine or phenibut supplements. But the products are still readily available.

One of the concerns, Lurie said, is that consumers will be lured away from therapies — medication or not — that are proven to help anxiety and depression.

Graves and Aussem made the same point.

“In this age of COVID-19,” Aussem said, “many people are trying to cope with anxiety and may wish to find a ‘natural’ product to alleviate their symptoms.”

But, she said, “talking to a health care provider about their concerns is the safest approach.”

More information

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more on dietary supplements.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Asthma, food sensitivity linked to irritable bowel syndrome in study

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Teens who had asthma and food hypersensitivity when they were younger are at increased risk of irritable bowel syndrome, researchers report.

For the study, the investigators examined the health of 2,770 children from birth to age 16. Kids with IBS at age 16 were more likely to have had asthma at age 12, about 11% versus 7%.

In addition, the researchers found that 16-year-olds with IBS were more likely to have had food hypersensitivity at age 12, 41% versus 29%.

Asthma, food hypersensitivity and eczema — a condition that makes your skin red and itchy — were all associated with an increased risk of concurrent IBS at age 16, the findings showed.

“The associations found in this large study suggest there’s a shared pathophysiology between common allergy-related diseases and adolescent irritable bowel syndrome,” said study leader Jessica Sjölund, of the Institute of Medicine at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.

Sjölund noted that previous studies on allergy-related diseases and IBS have been contradictory.

These new findings could lead to development of new treatments for adolescent IBS, targeting processes of low-grade inflammation seen in the allergy-related diseases, she said.

The study findings were scheduled for presentation Monday at a United European Gastroenterology virtual meeting. Research presented at meetings should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.

IBS affects more than one in 10 people and is the most common functional gastrointestinal disorder, the study authors noted in a meeting news release. It can cause abdominal cramps, bloating, diarrhea and constipation, and can be extremely disabling for patients.

Hans Törnblom is a leading IBS expert in Europe who was involved in the research. He said, “Even though functional gastrointestinal disorders are common, many patients are, unfortunately, negatively stigmatized and labeled. The fact that many IBS sufferers do not seek medical advice should be of great concern.”

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has more on IBS.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Cancer takes heavy toll on women’s work, finances, study shows

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Young women with cancer are at a high risk for employment and financial consequences, a new study finds.

“Our study addresses the burden of employment disruption and financial hardship among young women with cancer — a group who may be at particular risk for poor financial outcomes after cancer given their age and gender,” said researcher Clare Meernik, a fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

She and her colleagues surveyed more than 1,300 women in North Carolina and California a median of seven years after diagnosis. Their cancer was diagnosed when they were 15 to 39 years of age and working.

Following their diagnosis, 32% of the women had to stop working or cut back on their hours. Twenty-seven percent said they had to borrow money, go into debt or file for bankruptcy because of cancer treatment.

Women with disrupted employment were more likely — by 17 percentage points — to have these problems than women who were able to keep working.

Half of the women said they were stressed about their big medical bills, and women with disrupted employment were more likely to suffer psychological distress by 8 percentage points than women who were able to keep working.

The findings were published online Oct. 12 in the journal Cancer.

“Our findings highlight the need for effective interventions to promote job maintenance and transition back to the workforce after cancer treatment, as well as increased workplace accommodations and benefits, to improve cancer outcomes for young women,” Meernik said in a journal news release.

More information

To learn more about work and financial effects of cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.

Copyright 2020 HealthDay. All rights reserved.



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Study: Less restrictive reproductive rights reduce birth complications risk by 7%

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Oct. 13 (UPI) — Women living in states with less restrictive reproductive rights policies are 7% less likely have low birth weight babies than those living in states with more stringent laws, according to an analysis published Tuesday by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The risk was 8% lower for Black women living in less-restrictive states, the data showed.

“Our study provides evidence that reproductive rights policies play a critical role in advancing maternal and child health equity,” study co-author May Sudhinaraset, of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said in a statement.

Since the Supreme Court‘s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, which effectively legalized abortion, states have had “substantial discretion” in creating policies governing whether Medicaid covers the costs of contraception or reproductive health care.

Some states have taken steps that effectively limit access to abortion services and other reproductive care, Sudhinaraset and her colleagues said.

Black women are more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than any other race group, experience more maternal health complications than White women and generally have lower quality maternity care, they said.

In addition, women of color are more likely to experience adverse birth outcomes.

Compared to infants of normal weight, low-birth-weight babies face many potential health complications, including infections early in life and long-term problems, such as delayed motor and social development or learning disabilities.

Sudhinaraset and her colleagues analyzed birth record data for the nearly 4 million births that occurred in the 50 states and Washington, D.C., in 2016, comparing reproductive rights policies and adverse birth outcomes in each state.

They also evaluated if the associations were different for women of color and immigrants.

The findings indicate that expanding reproductive rights may reduce the risk of low-birth weight, particularly for U.S.-born Black women, the researchers said.

“Important policy levers can and should be implemented to improve women’s reproductive health overall, including increasing abortion access and mandatory sex education in schools,” Sudhinaraset said.



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