A 25-year-old Australian woman's sudden death is being blamed on her high-protein diet -- specifically protein supplements that she used.
Meegan Hefford, a competitive bodybuilder and mother of two, was found unresponsive in her apartment on June 19, according to Perth Now. She was taken to the hospital and was pronounced dead on June 22.
Doctors diagnosed Hefford with urea cycle disorder, a rare genetic condition that disrupts the body's ability to break down protein.
Hefford's death certificate cites "intake of bodybuilding supplements" as one cause of death. She had been drinking protein shakes and following a diet rich in meat and egg whites in preparation for a bodybuilding competition in September.
Because her body was unable to break down the protein normally, ammonia began to accumulate in her blood, which caused a buildup of fluid in her brain. By the time she arrived at the hospital, she had suffered significant brain damage.
"There was just no way of knowing she had it because they don't routinely test for it," Hefford's mother, Michelle White, told CNN. "She started to feel unwell, and she collapsed."
Hefford, who studied paramedicine and worked at Princess Margaret Hospital, had been a competitive bodybuilder since 2014.
Recently she had adopted a strict diet that was extremely high in protein. She also took supplements.
In June, she began complaining of fatigue and told her family she felt "weird."
"I said to her, 'I think you're doing too much at the gym. Calm down, slow it down,'" White told Perth Now.
Weeks later, Hefford was found unconscious by a real estate agent who had come to inspect the property.
White said she and her family struggled to process the news that Hefford, who seemed the picture of health, was rapidly dying.
"I couldn’t believe what the doctors were telling me," White recalled. "I said, 'You have to give her more time,' because she didn't look sick. She looked beautiful."
After Hefford's death, White found dozens of protein supplements in her daughter's kitchen. She is now lobbying for stricter regulations on such products.
"I know there are people other than Meegan who have ended up in hospital because they’ve overloaded on supplements," she said. "The sale of these products needs to be more regulated."
Since Hefford's death, health officials have issued warnings about the risks of using supplements.
"I think the problem with the supplement industry is that it's really designed to make money for the companies which sell the products and not to provide any significant health benefit for the vast majority of people taking them," said Dr. Omar Khorshid, president the Australian Medical Association WA. "This case is obviously tragic and illustrates that you may not know you have a health issue that alters the way you metabolize."
Hefford leaves behind a 7-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. Her organs were donated and used for transplants.
"Meegan has saved four people's lives because of her heart, her lungs and kidneys," White told Perth Now.
She added: "Losing Meegan, it's so awful and I still can't believe she's gone but I have to focus on the positives that at least I had 25 years with her and she jammed so much into her life, it's almost like she knew her time would be short."