Many people take dietary supplements, assuming that they are harmless. But a new report by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration questions that assumption. It found that more than 23,000 Americans each year end up in the emergency room after taking a dietary supplement, and more than 2,100 are hospitalized.  

Young Adults and Supplement Use

The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at supplement-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations at 63 hospitals between 2004 and 2013. It found that the ER visits most commonly involved young adults with symptoms such as chest pain, heart palpitations, and abnormally rapid heartbeat who had taken supplements promoted for weight loss (25.5 percent of the cases) or to increase energy (10 percent).

Other ER visits were associated with supplements promoted for sexual enhancement (3.4 percent), cardiovascular health (3.1 percent), or sleep (2.9 percent).  

The findings actually document the safety of dietary supplements, according to the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade group for the supplements industry. It says the study shows that only a tiny fraction of the many millions of Americans who routinely take dietary supplements suffer side effects serious enough to send them to the ER.

Current Law Offers Little Protection

But Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Report's chief medical adviser, says the study adds to the growing body of research showing that the supplement industry needs more oversight.

He points out that the study likely underestimates the number of adverse events, because many patients don't mention their supplement use when visiting the doctor.

"Those 23,000 annual ER visits can only be the tip of a gigantic iceberg," he says.

In addition, while many people assume that dietary supplements are carefully regulated by the government, that is not true. Unlike prescription drugs, supplements don't have to be tested for safety or receive FDA approval before they are marketed, Lipman says. Instead, supplement manufacturers and distributors are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their own products.

Over the past few years, there have been numerous reports of supposedly "natural" dietary supplements containing unlisted prescription drugs and other dangerous man-made compounds. And earlier this year, tests from New York state found that many "herbal" supplements did not contain the plant listed on the label.

“Consumer Reports has been a critic of how supplements are sold and regulated for over two decades,” Lipman says. "What began as a misguided attempt to provide the consumer with self-help products has backfired dramatically."