The dangers of dietary supplements

None of these products must be screened for efficacy or safety. Learn how to protect yourself.

Consumer Reports on Health: June 2012

Echinacea, a botanical supplement.
Photo: Steve Gorton/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

In this Office Visit column, Marvin Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser and medical editor, discusses the dangers of dietary supplements.

A 74-year-old licensed practical nurse came to the emergency room with a dangerously high blood pressure of 200/120. Emergency measures averted the risk of a stroke or heart attack and reduced her pressure to acceptable levels. One month previously, she had stopped taking her prescription blood-pressure medicine in favor of hawthorn and forskolin, herbal supplements she found on the Internet.

A 23-year-old graduate student with a history of multiple respiratory allergies including ragweed was seen in the office after four days of increasingly severe asthma and trouble breathing. He was admitted to a hospital and required a prednisone treatment to break the attack. He recalled that a week before he had felt a cold coming on and, not wanting to miss classes, took several tablets of echinacea, a botanical supplement, supplied by a friend.

A 75-year-old attorney with chronic atrial fibrillation came in for his monthly clotting-time test, necessary because he was on medication to prevent stroke-causing clots from forming in his heart. The test indicated a dangerously high risk of bleeding, and he was hospitalized while his dose was carefully adjusted. He admitted that for the past month he had been taking large doses of ginkgo biloba on the advice of a client who swore that the herb would prevent dementia.

An unregulated industry

The late Edward H. Rynearson, M.D., a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, said it all in a 1974 article in the journal Nutrition Reviews titled “Americans Love Hogwash.” He wrote that the most widespread quackery in the U.S. was the promotion of vitamins and dietary supplements. Today the industry has grown into a more than $28 billion-a-year behemoth. More than half of Americans use dietary supplements despite the fact that none of them are required to be screened for efficacy or safety.

In the early 1990s the Food and Drug Administration, concerned by reports of adverse reactions caused by widespread supplement use, began to crack down on the burgeoning industry. A lobbying campaign by supplement makers and marketers led to the passage of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in 1994 by a misguided Congress in the belief that it was protecting a consumer’s right to choose among health-care options.

In effect, the law prevents the FDA from interfering with the marketing of any product defined as a dietary supplement—including vitamins, minerals, herbals, botanicals, and amino acids. All regulatory barriers effectively swept aside, the industry exploded to the point that today some 55,000 products are on the market compared with just 4,000 in 1994. If the FDA wants to remove a supplement from the market, the law requires the agency to follow a burdensome process to prove the product is unsafe. Consequently, in all these years the agency has managed to ban only one ingredient, ephedra. Until 2007 the government didn’t even require manufacturers to report serious adverse events to the FDA.

How to protect yourself

Ignore or view with extreme skepticism the claims in dietary supplement ads, especially the ones that turn up when you use a Web search engine. Here are some other tips:

  • Instead of listening to well-meaning friends or even your own spouse or partner, research supplements and other health matters on trustworthy sites such as ConsumerReports.org, FDA.gov, MedlinePlus.gov, and USP.org.
  • Don’t mistake “natural” for safe. A growing list of “natural” dietary supplements has been linked to kidney problems, liver disease, nerve damage, and even cancer.
  • Be especially wary of dietary supplements promoted for weight loss, athletic performance, and sexual enhancement. Many of them have been recalled because they were adulterated with prescription drugs used for those indications.
  • Be sure to tell your doctor if you take supplements. Many of them interact with prescription and over-the-counter drugs or have side effects that can mimic those of prescribed drugs you’re taking. And excessive bleeding can occur during surgical procedures as a result of taking certain supplements.
  • Report any side effect you have had, or think you had, directly to the FDA by submitting a report or calling 800-332-1088. This is the only way to help create a safety net. It is estimated that less than 1 percent of adverse reactions are ever reported.

Marvin Lipman, M.D.

Chief Medical Adviser and Medical Editor
Editor's Note:

This article first appeared in the newsletter Consumer Reports on Health.



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