Fen-Phen's False Miracle
What is it? Why is it a "false miracle?"
When these weight loss drugs first hit the market, they were often
touted as miracle cures for obesity. As amphetamine-like
substances, the drugs curb appetite, alter glucose (sugar)
consumption by body tissues, and have an effect on one of the
brain's neurotransmitters called serotonin. However, it was soon
discovered that fen-phen was not quite the miracle it at first
seemed to be.
If you have even been prescribed "fen-phen" as a weight loss
treatment, the Food and Drug Administration has advised that you
undergo a thorough physical examination to ensure that the
medication did not cause any heart valve disease.
Fen-phen is a combination of fenfluramine, which is also sold
under the name Pondimin, and phentermine. Fenfluramine and
another similar drug called dexfenfluramine, sold under the name
Redux, have both been shown to increase the risk of developing
heart valve disease, which is what prompted the FDA's actions in
September 1997, when they asked manufacturers to remove the
drugs from the market.
This recommendation was made after some doctors found with
echocardiogram studies that approximately 30% of patients on
fenfluramine or dexfenfluramine had abnormal valve functions.
What makes this a special concern is that the vast majority of
these people did not have any symptoms that would indicate that
something is wrong with them.
Of course, when the FDA first approved of the use of these drugs,
no one had any idea that heart valve damage would turn out to be
such a dangerous side effect. In fact, these combinations of drugs
were never tested on women before they were put on the market.
By the time fen-phen and its cousins were recalled by the FDA, 1.1
million women in the United States were already using fen-phen to
induce weight loss.
How to Protect Yourself
Because of the increased risk associated with the drugs, the
Department of Health and Human Services has recommended
testing for anyone who has taken fenfluramine, alone or in
combination with phentermine, or dexfenfluramine. A thorough
medical examination is in order, with extra attention on heart and
As an extra precaution, anyone who has been prescribed the
weight loss medication should notify her dentist and physician
before she undergoes any medical procedure that may involve
blood loss, since people with valvular disorders are at greater risk
of developing a bacterial infection in their heart muscle. Very often,
the only extra care needed for such patients is a round of
antibiotics just before the procedure as a precautionary measure.
If a woman is unsure about the safety of any treatment, she simply
needs to ask her health care provider about its risks for those with
heart valve diseases.
Living Without Fen-Phen
It looks as though people who desire to lose a few pounds will
have to resort to those tried and true methods - healthy diet and
exercise. It is best to start an exercise program only after a
medical examination, and to do so with low levels of activity. Even
a brisk walk a few times a week is beneficial, and one may
progress to higher intensity workouts on a gradual basis.