August 14, 2012 — According to a new report in the September issue of Consumer Report, people who consume vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other dietary supplements should be aware about the hidden dangers of these products. An estimated 150 million Americans consume these products, and the industry generates $27 billion per year. Many people take these products to improve their health, assuming that they are safe because they are “all natural.” In fact, some dietary supplements are not “natural” and they are not always safe.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received thousands of reports of injury associated with dietary supplements. Between 2007 and April 2012, the FDA received reports of supplements associated with 6,300 serious injuries, 2,100 hospitalizations, and 115 deaths.
Some experts are now recommending that supplements should only be taken when there is a medical necessity, or at the specific direction of a physician to correct a deficiency. Many people who have a healthy diet and lifestyle get all the nutrients they need, and supplements should never be used to replace a healthy lifestyle.
Although many people assume that supplements are “all natural,” in fact, many are adulterated with synthetic substances, ingredients that are not listed on the label, the active ingredients in prescription drugs, and more. The FDA does not have the resources to test every product, and sometimes, tainted supplements remain on store shelves for years. Supplements for body-building, weight-loss, party pills, and sexual performance enhancement are the most commonly adulterated products, although other supplements may also be tainted.
The Center for Responsible Nutrition recommends that consumers only purchase supplements from well-known, respected retailers who have a good reputation. Many manufacturers have poor standards in their facilities — lacking quality control tests, or standard formulas, or allowing rats to infest the facility.
However, even when the product is made safely, it may be inherently unsafe. Some supplements contain significantly higher doses of vitamins and minerals than is recommended. Any time a product has more than 100% of your daily dose of a vitamin or mineral, there could potentially be adverse effects.
Even so, many supplements lack adequate warnings. The FDA only requires warnings if the product contains iron. However, products often do not have warnings for other known side effects — many products containing St. Johns Wort, for example, fail to mention that the supplement makes birth control pills less effective.
There is also growing evidence that dietary supplements may not be as effective as most people would like to believe, and some can even have serious side effects. Recent studies have linked calcium supplements to an increased risk of heart attack — but people who get enough calcium from their diet have a lower risk of heart attack. There was also a recent study that found Omega-3 pills were not effective at improving cardiac health in diabetics at high risk of heart problems. Vitamin E has been linked to prostate cancer.
Most people assume supplements are safe. However, supplement manufacturers don’t need to provide the FDA with safety information before they can sell their products. The standards are far more relaxed than they are for pharmaceutical drugs, or even foods.
Experts recommend talking to your doctor before you start taking a dietary supplement, especially pregnant women and people who are taking other medications. This includes all vitamins, minerals, herbs, and supplements.
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