Thousands of people are getting refunds for a bogus supplement that claimed to treat drug addiction


More than 5,000 Americans are about to get a check in the mail, after regulators discovered that a Florida-based supplement maker was peddling an herbal drink mix that it claimed could help treat addiction.

The company, Sunrise Nutraceuticals, marketed its Elimidrol powdered drink mix as having a "high success rate ... in overcoming opiate withdrawal" and said it could help people "leave addiction behind permanently," according to a statement from the Federal Trade Commission.

But the product, which Sunrise sold online by the tub for $75, contained no ingredients that have been scientifically proven to help with drug withdrawal or addiction symptoms. Instead, it was composed mainly of herbal extracts like lemon balm, ginger root, ginseng, and magnolia bark, plus a handful of vitamins and minerals such as vitamins B and C.

The FTC sued Sunrise for making "deceptive claims" and is sending refund checks totaling more than $210,000 to people who bought Elimidrol, many of whom may have been using the product to help treat addictions to opioid painkillers.

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What opioids do to your health
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What opioids do to your health

Opioid painkillers capitalize on our body's natural pain-relief system. We all have a series of naturally produced keys ("ligands") and keyholes ("receptors") that fit together to switch on our brain's natural reward system — it's the reason we feel good when we eat a good meal or have sex, for example. But opioids mimic the natural keys in our brain — yes, we all have natural opioids! When they click in, we can feel an overwhelming sense of euphoria.

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Opioid painkillers can have effects similar to heroin and morphine, especially when taken in ways other than prescribed by a doctor.

When prescription painkillers act on our brain's pleasure and reward centers, they can make us feel good. More importantly, though, they can work to reinforce behavior, which in some people can trigger a repeated desire to use.

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You may also feel sleepy.

Opioids act on multiple brain regions, but when they go to work in the locus ceruleus, a brain region involved in alertness, they can make us sleepy. Why? The drugs essentially put the brakes on the production of a chemical called norepinephrine, which plays a role in arousal.

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Your skin may feel flushed and warm.

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You'll begin to feel their effects 10 to 90 minutes after use, depending on whether they're taken as directed or used in more dangerous ways.

Some drugmakers design versions of their medications to deter abuse. Extended-release forms of oxycodone, for example, are designed to release slowly when taken as directed. But crushing, snorting, or injecting the drugs can hasten their effects.

It can also be deadly. Between 2000 and 2014, nearly half a million Americans died from overdoses involving opioid painkillers and heroin, a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. The most commonly prescribed painkillers were involved in more overdose deaths than any other type of the drug.

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Your breathing will slow as well.

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Depending on the method used, the effect can last anywhere from four to 12 hours.

For severe pain, doctors typically prescribe opioid painkillers like morphine for a period of four to 12 hours, according to the Mayo Clinic. Because of their risks, it's important to take prescription painkillers only according to your physician's specific instructions.

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Overdosing can stop breathing and cause brain damage, coma, or even death.

2014 report from the American Academy of Neurology estimates that more than 100,000 Americans have died from prescribed opioids since the late 1990s. Those at highest risk include people between 35 and 54, the report found, and deaths for this age group have exceeded deaths from firearms and car crashes.

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Combining them with alcohol or other drugs — even when taken according to the directions — can be especially deadly.

Since they slow breathing, combining opioid painkillers with other drugs with similar effects can drastically raise the chances of accidental overdose and death.

Yet they're often prescribed together anyway, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Unfortunately, too many patients are still co-prescribed opioid pain relievers and benzodiazepines [tranquilizers]," the institute said. In 2011, 31% of prescription opioid-related overdose deaths involved these drugs.

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Abusing opioid painkillers has been linked with abusing similar drugs, like heroin.

A CDC report found that people who'd abused opioid painkillers were 40 times as likely to abuse heroin compared with people who'd never abused them. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that close to half of young people surveyed in three recent studies who'd injected heroin said they'd abused prescription painkillers before they started using heroin.

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You may also develop a tolerance for the drugs so that you need more to get the same effect over time.

Tolerance to opioid painkillers happens when the brain cells with opioid receptors — the keyholes where the opioids fit — become less responsive to the opioid stimulation over time. Scientists think that this may play a powerful role in addiction.

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Suddenly stopping the drugs can result in withdrawal symptoms like shakiness, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Taking prescription painkillers for an extended period increases the likelihood that your brain will adapt to them by making less of its own natural opioids. So when you stop taking the drugs, you can feel pretty miserable. For most people, this is uncomfortable but temporary.

But in people who are vulnerable to addiction, it can be dangerous because it can spurn repeated use.

"From a clinical standpoint, opioid withdrawal is one of the most powerful factors driving opioid dependence and addictive behaviors," Yale psychiatrists Thomas Kosten and Tony George write in a 2002 paper in the Journal of Addiction Science & Clinical Practice.

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"Opiate addiction has taken a tremendous toll on the American public,” Jessica Rich, the Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. “By peddling their unproven product, these defendants have prevented people from seeking legitimate treatment.”

While supplements might sound harmless, many are unnecessary, misleading, or even dangerous. The $37-billion-dollar supplement industry is largely unregulated; the agencies who oversee it are confined mainly to reacting once a supplement is found to have hurt someone or severely misled them. As a result, pills and powders that are found to be linked with negative conditions like cancer or kidney stones may only get recalled after they've lingered on grocery shelves for months.

"In the US, no dietary supplements are pre-screened for safety and efficacy," S. Bryn Austin, a professor of behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Business Insider. "What that means is the FDA and consumers have no way to know if what’s in the bottle or box is what’s on the label. There’s no way to know for sure that what’s in the product is safe."

The FTC case against Sunrise is part of the agency's ongoing work with the Food and Drug Administration to protect consumers from misleading health advertising. If you think a claim on a dietary supplement is false, you can report it to the FTC. If you've had an adverse reaction to a supplement, you can report it to the FDA.

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