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Popular Herbal Supplement May Be Harmful to Kids

Children are being poisoned by a widely used dietary supplement which adults take for sexual enhancement, a new report warns.

At least 275,000 calls — an average of one call every 24 minutes — were made to poison control centers because of exposure to all kinds of dietary supplements between 2002-2012, according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Central Ohio Poison Center, both at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

But in the report published online Monday, researchers singled out yohimbe tree bark extract as the latest in a long list of dangerous substances that children are accidentally ingesting. Of all the calls made to the poison control centers in the past decade, yohimbe exposure had the largest proportion of serious outcome and has been found to cause heart beat rhythm changes and kidney failure in children.

Yohimbe is the name of an evergreen tree found in parts of central and western Africa. The bark of yohimbe contains a chemical called yohimbine, which is used to make medicine. For centuries, yohimbe has been used in Africa to treat fever and leprosy or as an aphrodisiac, but currently its most popular use is to treat erectile dysfunction in men and low libido in women, even though there is scant evidence that it works.

As a dietary supplement, the dried bark of the yohimbe tree is available in capsule and tablets forms as well as in tea. Since the dose range is narrow — take too little and it doesn’t work and take too much and it is toxic — use of this herb is not recommended. The Food and Drug Administration has received reports of seizures and kidney failure associated with yohimbe consumption.

Even “safe” dosages may cause dizziness, nausea, insomnia, anxiety, a rise in blood pressure, and rapid heartbeat. Overdose can be fatal. Internet claims boast great results in the bedroom; however, there are many other FDA-approved medications for ED, like Viagra or Cialis, which are much safer and more effective.

"Many consumers believe dietary supplements are held to the same safety and efficacy standards as over-the-counter medications," said Dr. Gary Smith, senior author of the study and director of the Center of Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's. "However, dietary supplements are not considered drugs, thus they are not required to undergo clinical trials or obtain approval from the FDA prior to sale, unless the product is labeled as intended for therapeutic use."

In the study, 1,818 cases of yohimbe exposure were reported over the past ten years — 512 of which were considered serious. The report was published online Monday in the Journal of Medical Toxicology.

Related: Caffeine Overdose Killed South Carolina Teen

The study also found that 78 percent of yohimbe exposures occurred in children, ages six or older, although most supplement exposures occur in children under six. Among reported exposures, 3.2 percent were admitted to a critical care unit for treatment, with one reported death. At least 1.3 percent of cases were serious and more than a quarter caused moderate harm.

The vast majority of exposures were unintentional.

Henry Spiller, co-author of the study and director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children Hospital, says the findings show the need for child-resistant packaging, caregiver education and FDA regulation of yohimbe and other energy supplements.