Dietary supplements are all the rage, with people looking for more natural, less expensive and healthier alternatives to prescription medications and the rising cost of healthcare. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for eating healthy and using nutrition and food as medicine whenever possible, but dietary supplements are at best ineffective and at worst dangerous or deadly, when consumers are not educated and do not consult with their health care professionals before using them.
The problem with dietary supplements is multi-fold. First, people misunderstand and think ‘all-natural’, ‘100% organic’, ‘plant-based’ and other ‘buzz words’ are safe, or even that they are safer than prescription meds. This is not always the case. Hemlock and certain cyanides are all natural too, and both can kill if ingested. Many of our illegal narcotics are all natural and plant-derived too, but they can’t be marketed and sold to us over the counter.
Dietary Supplements are Legally Considered Food
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a problem where dietary supplements are concerned: The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) requires manufacturers of dietary supplements ensure their products are safe, which is good, but then only grants the FDA an opportunity to control those supplements after the products have hit the market and then are deemed unsafe. They are deemed unsafe when people use them and have adverse effects. In other words, people have to be damaged by the product before it can be regulated.
By contrast, prescription medications that can only be given to you by a doctor or licensed health professional require vigorous testing and clinical trials and they have to petition the FDA to manufacture and market a drug for a specific purpose. To me, this seems completely crazy. Both have the potential to help or harm equally, and prescriptions at least are supposed to have a trained professional prescribing. Dietary supplements can be picked up off the grocery store shelf by anyone.
The Real Dietary Supplement Problem: No Consistency, Efficacy, Proof
Several independent studies have determined that many of the supplements on the market today might very well contain the listed ingredients on the label, as the FDA requires, but that there is no consistency in the quantity of the ingredients and there is little to no testing to verify that the type of ingredients used can even be absorbed by the body. After that, even if we assumed the dietary supplements had efficacy and could be used by the body, there’s no proof or clinical trials with controls that prove the benefits of the supplements are real, experienced by most, and that the side effects aren’t dangerous.
In other words, consumers might very well be paying for dietary supplements that, when taken, can’t be metabolized, and therefore do absolutely nothing, or they might be taking a supplement that is in dosages so high, untested and tried, that they are dangerous — even deadly.
Undeclared Ingredients, Mislabeled Dietary Supplements
Here’s the scariest part: Because the FDA has no control over the dietary supplement industry in the same way they could control prescription medications, supplements might have ingredients in them that are given names the average consumer might not recognize, but that, when mixed with certain medical conditions or prescription medications, could be deadly. Then, worse yet, the dietary supplements might interact with prescription medication and cause a deadly combination.
While the FDA takes a hard-line approach to recalling and shutting down these dietary supplements with undeclared ingredients or mislabeled products, they might just be too late to stop the damage.
How to Find Safe Dietary Supplements
Drugs.com is a fantastic website where users can enter the medications and supplements they are taking and check for any interactions with medication, diet and health conditions. I highly recommend it for anyone taking any medication or supplement regularly, and to always use it before starting a new medication. Drugs.com also sends email notices to people when a dietary supplement has been pulled for undeclared or unsafe ingredients.
Also, patients should always consult with their healthcare professionals about any supplements, vitamins, minerals or drugs they are taking. Some doctors don’t like dietary supplements at all, so if that’s the case with your doctor, consider looking for a doctor who is at least willing to consider the use of dietary supplements, but who is also versed in the ingredients lists to ensure they don’t interact with your medications.
The best way to go about taking or considering dietary supplements in your life is to first consult a doctor, make sure you are healthy, and then educate yourself about the supplements you are considering. Read the labels, look up each of the ingredients and find out what they are and how they react within the body. Look for supplements that have clinical trials and read the results.
Dietary Supplements Aren’t All Bad
I love taking certain supplements that might help enhance my health, and I think a more natural approach to healthcare is always a good option versus chemicals and prescription medications that are not necessary. Unfortunately, too many of the supplements on the market don’t do what they say they will do, and the ones that might, could be dangerous. This doesn’t mean not to consider or use dietary supplements though. It simply means taking responsibility and control of your own health and your own life into your own hands, and not letting the dietary supplement advertisers, corporations and marketers speak to your emotions and fears.
To learn more about undeclared ingredients in dietary supplements you are currently taken or have taken in the past, visit Drugs.com and search for your supplement by name or ingredient to see if there’s an FDA warning for it.
~Food and Drug Administration Website, “Dietary Supplements”, Retrieved 5/03/2011
~National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “St. John’s Wort”, ~Retrieved 5/03/2011