Many of us take dietary supplements like echinacea to fight off a cold or ginkgo to help boost our memory. We’re used to people questioning whether these substances really work. But a new article published by Consumer Reports suggests we should be worried about something far more serious – the health risks that lurk in some supplements.
Consider this: dietary supplements are not regulated the same way that traditional pharmaceuticals are. The government treats supplements as food, as opposed to as drugs, so they are not subjected to the stringent testing other medicines undergo before hitting the shelves. Most often, the FDA gets involved only after a report that there’s a problem with a particular supplement.
As a result, there’s no sure-fire way to know that any over-the-counter supplement contains what it claims to, or, more importantly, that it’s safe. So you could be wasting money on something that amounts to a placebo, or exposing yourself to something harmful.
Take the following supplements and their associated uses, for example. These 14 ingredients, found in dietary supplements sold across the country, have been found to be harmful for people with pre-existing medical conditions, or who are taking other supplements, prescriptions or over-the-counter medications.
1. Aconite – inflammation, joint pain, or gout
2. Caffeine powder – weight loss, increased energy, and athletic performance
3. Chaparral – weight loss, inflammation, colds, rashes, and infections
4. Coltsfoot – cough, sore throat, laryngitis, and asthma
5. Comfrey –cough, heavy periods, stomach problems, and chest pain
6. Germander – weight loss, fever, arthritis, gout, and stomach problems
7. Greater Celadine – stomach aches
8. Green tea extract powder – weight loss
9. Kava – anxiety and insomnia
10. Lobelia – respiratory problems and for quitting smoking
11. Methylsynephrine – weight loss, increased energy, and athletic performance
12. Pennyroyal oil – breathing problems and digestive disorders
13. Red yeast rice – high cholesterol and heart disease
14. Yohimbe – low libido, erectile dysfunction, depression, and weight loss
Some of these ingredients have been associated with side effects such as vomiting, nausea, dizziness, impaired driving, and breathing problems. Others have been linked to even more serious conditions, like liver damage, cancer and heart problems. The quality of the ingredients (often unknown) and the length of time they are taken affect the severity of these health risks.
Added to these risks is the possibility of negative drug interactions. Think of the person who takes a statin drug to lower their cholesterol. This person learns that red yeast rice can also help reduce cholesterol, and so they decide to turbo charge their efforts. That might sound good in theory but the combination of the two substances significantly increases the risk of liver damage.
Bottom line: talk to your doctor or pharmacist about the benefits and potential risks before taking any dietary supplement. If you really want the supplement’s benefits, consider taking prescription supplements, which must meet the same safety and efficacy standards as other prescription drugs.
Above all, try meeting your health needs by eating balanced meals and living a healthy lifestyle. Being mindful about what you put into your body and how you take care of yourself with exercise and sleep are still the best ways to maintain good health.