Are Your Supplements Hurting Your Health?

herbal medicineSometimes it’s almost impossible to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, and many people rely on dietary supplements to fill in the gaps. More than half of the adult population have taken them to stay healthy, lose weight, gain an edge in sports or in the bedroom, and avoid using prescription drugs. In 2009, we spent $26.7 billion on them, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, a trade publication.

But what consumers might not realize is that supplement manufacturers routinely, and legally, sell their products without being required to prove that they’re safe and effective.

What Makes Certain Supplements Dangerous?

A dozen ingredients commonly found in dietary supplements should be avoided, according to a new report, because they are linked to cancer, coma, kidney and liver damage, heart problems, and death.

Researchers from Consumer Reports worked with experts from the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, an independent research group, first identifying from a database of nearly 1,100 ingredients a group of about 25 ingredients that had been linked to serious problems either by research studies or case reports. The list was then reduced to the top 12, evaluating adverse events as well as how available the ingredients were and how aggressively the products containing them are promoted, said Nancy Metcalf, senior program editor at Consumer Reports. She and her colleagues combed medical literature and other data as well.

Which Supplements Should I Be Most Concerned About?

Compiled by Consumer Reports, 12 dietary supplement ingredients termed the ‘dirty dozen” have been identified by leading experts. “The dozen we call out in this report are by no means the only dangerous ingredients,” Metcalf said. “The ones in the following list have been identified as some of the most concerning.”

• Aconite, used for joint pain, wounds, gout, and inflammation, but linked with nausea, vomiting, heart rhythm disorders, respiratory system paralysis, and death.

• Bitter orange, used for weight loss, allergies, and nasal congestion, but linked with fainting, heart rhythm disorder, heart attack, stroke, and death.

• Chaparral, used for weight loss, colds, infections, inflammation, cancer, and detoxification, but linked to kidney and liver problems.

• Colloidal silver, used for fungal and other infections, Lyme disease, rosacea, psoriasis, food poisoning, chronic fatigue syndrome, and HIV/AIDS, but linked to bluish skin color, mucous membrane discoloration, neurological problems, and kidney damage.

• Coltsfoot, used for cough, sore throat, laryngitis, bronchitis, and asthma, but linked to cancer and liver damage.

• Comfrey, used for cough, heavy menstrual periods, chest pain, and cancer, but linked to liver damage and cancer.

• Country mallow, used for allergies, asthma, weight loss, bronchitis, and nasal congestion, but linked to heart attack and arrhythmia, stroke, and death.

• Germanium, used for pain, infections, glaucoma, liver problems, arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and cancer, but linked to kidney damage and death.

• Greater celandine, used for upset stomach, irritable bowel syndrome, liver disorders, detoxification, and cancer, but linked to liver damage.

• Kava, used for anxiety (and is possibly effective, according to Consumer Reports), but linked to liver damage.

• Lobelia, used for coughs, bronchitis, asthma, smoking cessation, but linked to toxicity, with overdose linked with fast heartbeat, very low blood pressure, coma, and possible death.

• Yohimbe, used as an aphrodisiac, for chest pain or diabetic complications, depression, and erectile dysfunction (and possibly effective, according to Consumer Reports), but linked to high blood pressure and rapid heart rate at usual doses and at high doses linked to severe low blood pressure, heart problems, and death.

Why Are These Supplements Only Now Being Identified?

The current report is actually updates a previous investigation on supplements done by Consumer Reports, Metcalf says. The publication thought it important to update the information, she says, as ‘half the adult population takes some supplement.” The possible problems listed for each are based on either case reports or clinical research.

Dietary supplements are regulated under the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994. Under an amendment effective in 2007, manufacturers are now required to report serious adverse events.

But Metcalf and others think the FDA needs more regulatory power. ‘The FDA should be given more power to yank these things form the market when found ineffective,” Metcalf says.

Some supplements, she says, include ingredients that can be ‘inherently harmful” and lack proof of effectiveness. In other cases, manufacturer error may lead to excess amounts of ingredients in products.

Are There Any Supplements That Have Been Identified As Safe?

In the report, Consumer Reports also identifies 11 supplements “to consider.”

On that list: calcium, cranberry, fish oil, glucosamine sulfate, lactase, lactobacillus, psyllium, pygeum, SAMe, St. John’s wort, and vitamin D.

For safer supplement use, Metcalf says, consumers can beware of products that have been linked with the most problems — those for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and body building. Despite the popularity of these supplements, you need to be extremely careful about buying nutritional supplements, because there are several different ways they can be harmful.

A product that has a “USP Verified” mark means the manufacturer has asked the U.S. Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit standards-setting authority, to verify the quality, purity, and potency of its raw ingredients or the finished product.

Consumers can also check out alerts and advisories regarding dietary supplements on the web sites of the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements and the FDA, in addition to always seeking the advice of their doctor before taking any supplements.

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