Protein cocktail in a glass, scoop and banana on a white wooden table close-up

In 1886 Atlanta pharmacist, John S. Pemberton began selling a cocaine- and caffeine-infused elixir to treat ailments such as headaches, dyspepsia, and nervous conditions. He called this tasty and effervescent tonic, Coca-Cola. It was a big hit then, and it still is today, minus the cocaine and health claims.

As long as there have been people suffering from ill health, there have been people touting “cures.” With the clarity of hindsight we scoff at many of these, saying they were naive at the least and deadly at worst. Those were the old days right? Maybe not. Some say that today’s dietary supplement industry has taken the place of the old tonic and elixir sellers.

New research out of Harvard published this month (June 2019) in the Journal of Adolescent Health illuminated some serious and even deadly side effects from dietary supplements. The researchers looked at their use in children, adolescents, and young adults (up to 25 years old) between the years 2004 and 2015. During the 11-year study period there were 1,392 adverse events reported. This included 166 hospitalizations, 39 reports of life-threatening events, and 22 deaths.

Study Subjects age 18-25 experienced most of the adverse events. According to the study, dietary supplements sold for muscle building, weight loss, and energy were nearly three times more likely than vitamins to cause serious medical events.

“The FDA has issued countless warnings about supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building or sport performance, sexual function, and energy, and we know these products are widely marketed to and used by young people. So what are the consequences for their health? That’s the question we wanted to answer,” said lead study author Flora Or in this Harvard press release.

Their research findings show just how dangerous dietary supplements can be, and the authors recommend increasing regulation to reduce access to these products. Unfortunately, this cry for action is needed because we lack a system of regulation for dietary supplements in this country.

Supplements do fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but not in the same way that foods and conventional drugs do. The FDA does not have authorization to assess the quality, effectiveness, or safety of dietary supplements before they are sent to market. This means that this process only happens after the public has started consuming them and a problem is reported. Here is their official stance:

“FDA does not approve dietary supplement products before they are sold to the public. Therefore, it is particularly important for consumers, health professionals, and industry members to report serious health-related reactions or illnesses (also known as adverse events) to FDA, so we can take action to protect the public from unsafe products.”

This does not mean that all dietary supplements are dangerous. In fact, certain vitamin deficiencies may well be best treated with dietary supplements, but this should be discussed with your doctor. Sometimes even when a supplement is considered safe and effective, there is a good medical reason why you shouldn’t take it.

Telling your doctor about any supplements you are considering or taking allows for a more complete view of how it might impact your health. Remember, just because a powdered supplement comes in chocolate and says it is full of B vitamins, doesn’t mean you should put it in your body.

If you have concerns about your health and how it may be impacted by supplements, contact us and make an appointment today.