Ex-NBA star (and all around well-liked human) Lamar Odom remains unconscious after being rushed to the hospital from a Nevada brothel earlier in the week. One of the drugs reportedly found in Odom’s system was Reload 72 Hours Strong, an herbal sexual supplement. Odom’s companions also reported that he was using cocaine — another danger, to be sure — but it’s worth giving close attention to Reload and products like it.
In general, the prevailing thought about herbal libido supplements is that they don’t work or that they only sort of work by combining a cocktail of dried herbs that may have a vaguely energizing effect (assuming that they are quality dried herbs in the first place). Ginseng, ginko, saw palmetto, maca — many of the ingredients in Reload are plant extracts that consistently correlate with higher energy levels, clarity of thought, positive feelings, etc. It’s important to note that the plants listed on the backs of herbal supplements aren’t unknowns, they’ve been studied by doctors and academics.
Here’s where things go sideways: libido supplements like Reload aren’t just herbal. They’re also often pharmaceutical, filled with lab synthesized drugs that are only represented by the vague words “proprietary blend” on the label. So the problem isn’t that the supplements don’t work, it’s that they work too well thanks to the fact that the fake-seeming pills are full of very real drugs — served up in a totally unregulated way.
If you thought you were buying ginseng and vitamin B and ginko and a bunch of other herbs you assumed you’d pee out of your system, you might be tempted to take lots, right? It’s something akin to eating 40 vita-gummies. But if that same supplement was filled with real Viagra, taking them by the fistful could lower your blood pressure to a catastrophic degree.
In 2013, the FDA issued an alert specifically about Reload, which stated that the supplement contained sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra). They ordered destruction of the pill, though the Love Ranch (where Odom was staying) was still retailing it in 2015. So far this year, the FDA has issued more than 30 similar warnings. Products that we perceive as innocuous by the very nature of their ridiculous names — Stiff Nights, King of Romance, Vigra (for the sex enthusiast who will be confused by a spelling error), Hard Wang — all have real sildenafil in them. You don’t expect to get real Viagra out of an absurd-looking package at a gas station, but you can. You can get Cialis too, often insane amounts of it. One product tested by the FDA contained 31 times the prescribed level of the pill’s active ingredient, tadalafil.
Why would companies do this? Why would they actually provide better success than the user anticipates upon purchase? They know that people assume their products don’t work, but they also know that men will try anything to be alpha-level, long lasting, quick recharging lovers. The pills are cheap (you save a lot of money when you’re dodging regulation) and they’re sold over the counter. In the ego-driven male mind, “Eh, it’s worth a shot.” If the pill doesn’t have any effect, lesson learned. If the things do work, the customer is hooked (not necessarily to the brand but to the whole notion of herbal sex supplements). So these brands sneak in the few compounds that are proven to work (sildenafil, tadalafil), and hide them from the FDA.
What happens when these companies get caught? Nothing, really. The pills are imported from China, so the brands fold, websites disappear (as the Reload site has) and resurface with the same formula and a different name. It’s the exact same thing that happens with bath salts. Basically, the whole thing is a shell game: opportunists cheating the system and staying one step ahead of an overwhelmed FDA. Consumers suffer — last year there were 617 ER visits due to herbal sexual supplements and Stiff Nights was implicated in a 2013 death — while the FDA scrambles to catch up. As the administration admitted in the Reload warning, they are, “unable to test and identify all products marketed as dietary supplements.”
None of this is to say that the cocaine that Odom was reportedly using wasn’t a factor. The degree of potential danger increases when you throw cocaine and alcohol into the mix with sildenafil. The cocaine-Viagra combo is known to cause aortic dissection — in which the inner layer of the aorta tears. But of course there’s no way to know you’re taking that extra risk if you think you’re just downing ginseng and ginko.
Real talk for just a second: it’s likely that this wasn’t Odom’s first time using cocaine, alcohol, or combining the two. Cocaine is definitely dangerous, no one is claiming otherwise, but not everyone uses cocaine like Tony Montana. Even a person in the throes of a bender might have some sense of “limits.” [Maybe Odom didn’t, this comment is obviously speculative.] Still, by teasing out the logic a little, and understanding that Odom bought his Reload at the brothel, it’s fair to hazard a guess that this product — illegally created by a ghost company and sold over the counter — was the biggest variable in the mix at the time he went unconscious.
It’s a sobering topic to unpack while Lamar Odom, a real person with a kind heart, fights for his life, but it’s also important and now seems to be the time to discuss it. Sometimes issues are endlessly complex, and sometimes they’re as easy as saying, “Don’t trust something sold over the counter at a brothel or gas station.” Best case scenario, it has no effect. Worst case scenario, it contains unregulated synthetic drugs.
Pieter Cohen M.D. summed the situation up effectively when he told Consumer Reports, “If you’re taking a sexual enhancement supplement that is working, you should stop immediately. You are putting your health at risk.”