What is GBL?
GBL (gamma butyrolactone) is an industrial solvent used to degrease engines, remove stains, and strip wood. In the 1990s, GBL was also the key ingredient in a number of products that promised better sleep, more enjoyable sex, or bigger muscles. Unlike some supplements, GBL actually does something once it reaches the body: It changes to GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate), a potent depressant of the central nervous system.
In fact, GBL is so powerful that the Food and Drug Administration considers it an unapproved drug. In 1999, the agency urged consumers not to use any product containing GBL and pressed manufacturers to recall products designed for human consumption that contained GBL. Since 2000 the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has identified GBL as a controlled substance and has had jurisdiction over it, seizing batches to prevent it from being marketed to consumers. In 2005, for example, Pete Rose Jr. pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges after the DEA busted a GBL trafficking organization. The DEA warns that "GBL is a substance that was never intended for human consumption because it can cause significant health problems including seizures and possibly even death."
What are the dangers of GBL?
The DEA has documented more than 15,000 overdoses and law enforcement encounters with the drug, as well as 72 deaths. Other reported side effects include vomiting, dangerously slow breathing and slow heart rates, coma and unconsciousness. In spite of its dangers, GBLs popularity has dramatically increased. The Drug Abuse Warning Network reports that in 1994 there were 56 emergency room visits related to GHB; in 2005 there were 1,861.
GBL may also cause severe withdrawal symptoms that could put a user in the hospital. Doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Harvard Medical School investigated the case of five young men, mostly bodybuilders, who had taken GBL for two to nine months. When the men suddenly stopped taking GBL, they suffered withdrawal symptoms that included anxiety, insomnia, paranoid delusions, hallucinations, tremors, rapid heartbeat, and high blood pressure. The men had to be sedated in order to stabilize their vital signs, and spent about five days in the hospital recovering.
You should also avoid the depressant GHB and 1,4 butanediol (BD), which are close chemical cousins of GBL. GHB is available in the United States only as an investigational drug for specific purposes; it can't be marketed legally but is available in street drugs such as "liquid ecstasy" and "nature's quaalude." (It has also been implicated as a "date rape" drug, according to the FDA.) BD is another industrial solvent which is also sometimes used in the manufacture of plastics.
If you're unsure whether a product contains GBL, GBH, or BD, look for these chemical names on the label: 1,4 butanediol, tetramethylene glycol, gamma butyrolactone, or 2(3H)-Furanone di-hydro. If any are present, steer clear of the product.
In particular, don't indulge in unknown "party drugs." GBL, GHB, and BD are all strong depressants, which means you should never consume them before driving or operating machinery, and mixing them with alcohol is asking for serious trouble.
American Academy of Family Physicians. Gamma-Hydroxybutyrate (GHB). March 2010. http://familydoctor.org
CDC MMWR Weekly, February 26, 1999/48(07); 137-140.
Sivilotti ML, et al. Pentobarbital for severe gamma-butyrolactone withdrawal. Ann Emerg Med 2001 Dec;38(6):660-5.
Establishment of a Threshold for Gamma-Butyrolactone; Correction. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Federal Register: December 12, 2001 (Volume 66, Number 239)