Did you know that more than half of Americans take some type of dietary supplement? In fact, we spend about $30 billion on dietary supplements each year. Many people are lured by the promise that the pills are made from natural products, and they are often marketed as a safer alternative to prescription drugs.
But how safe are they?
Supplements contain more than 1,100 known ingredients including herbs, minerals, vitamins, enzymes and amino acids.
Many people are drawn to these products in hopes that they will help with an endless list of health conditions including heart disease, low libido, weight loss, arthritis, high cholesterol and many, many others.
It all reminds me of the people once drawn to the legendary hucksters who traveled the backroads, shuttling from town to town and hawking their cure-alls.
What many people probably don’t realize, even today, is that these supplements are legally sold just like that old-time snake oil: without any requirement that their safety and effectiveness be proven.
Ever heard of the Dietary Supplement Health and Educational Act of 1994? This is an act that allows dietary supplements to go unregulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
That’s right: The FDA does not regulate any of the dietary supplements that many of us collectively spend billions of dollars on each year.
The law now requires supplement manufacturers to provide the FDA with evidence that any new ingredients added to supplements are safe. Unfortunately, this has not yet been enforced.
Supplements need to be regulated more strictly because there are a growing number of ingredients that may cause and have caused heart, liver and kidney problems.
What’s scarier is that the majority of products that contain these ingredients are easily accessible in stores and online.
Dietary supplements are generally used for health and wellness, but in the eyes of the FDA they actually fall under the category of nutrients and foods. This puts everyone who purchases these products at risk of being exposed to their potentially harmful ingredients.
It is crucial for the safety and health of consumers to understand what they are buying when purchasing dietary supplements. It is essential to know the risks and benefits of these products in order for people to avoid some of the potentially dangerous — and toxic — reactions that dietary supplements have caused.
Fortunately, Consumer Reports Health investigates and researches the use of dietary supplements in order to help people identify and avoid dangerous supplements.
This helps people understand which supplements are safe and effective — meaning which have benefits that are supported by scientific evidence.
A recent study of the dietary supplement industry found that supplements have many hidden ingredients. Some of them even contain ingredients only meant for prescription drugs, not over-the-counter use.
The study tested 10% of the 274 supplements the FDA recalled between 2009 and 2012 because the products were being illegally marketed.
Those 27 potions included six weight-loss products that contained sibutramine, a substance similar to the diet drug removed from the U.S. market in 2010 after it was linked to heart attacks and strokes; two that contained the active ingredient in Prozac; 10 products, marketed for body-building, that were found to contain anabolic steroids or similar compounds that have been linked to prostate cancer, aggression and infertility; and one sexual enhancement product that contained sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, which is not recommended for people taking certain heart medications.
According to Consumer Reports Health, the following are some of the most dangerous supplements that clinical research has found to be linked to serious side effects and health conditions — and I wouldn’t get anywhere near any of these.
Purported uses : anxiety and insomnia.
Possible dangers : liver damage. The FDA warned about using Kava in 2002. Kava is now banned in some countries, including Canada, Switzerland and Germany.
Purported uses : weight loss, nasal congestion, allergies.
Possible dangers : Fainting, heart-rhythm disorders, heart attack, stroke, death. Contains synephrine, which is similar to ephedrine, banned by the FDA in 2004. Risks might be higher when taken with herbs that contain caffeine.
Purported uses : fungal and other infections, Lyme disease, rosacea, psoriasis, food poisoning, chronic fatigue syndrome, HIV/AIDS.
Possible dangers : Bluish skin, mucous membrane discoloration, neurological problems, kidney damage. Silver has no known function in the body. Taking it can lead to a buildup of silver in the liver, spleen, kidney, muscle, and brain. The FDA has ruled this product as neither safe nor effective.
Purported uses : inflammation, joint pain, wounds, gout.
Possible dangers : toxicity, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, respiratory system paralysis, heart-rhythm disorders, death. Aconite is a plant whose root contains toxic chemicals. In Hong Kong, aconite is the most common cause of severe herbal poisoning.
Purported uses : cough, heavy menstrual periods, chest pain, cancer.
Possible dangers : liver damage, cancer. Comfrey has toxic subtances called pyrrolizidine alkaloids that damage the liver and can lead to death. These toxic substances are absorbed through the skin, so harmful amounts can build up in the body. It is no longer sold in the U.S., except in creams or ointments, and it’s also banned in the U.K., Australia, Canada and Germany.
Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery, and an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor of urology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel’s Medical A-Team and the chief medical correspondent for am970 in New York City, where he is heard Sundays at 10 a.m.