Dietary Supplements; are yours making you sick?

A recent survey estimated that nearly half of the US adult population (~114 million people) regularly takes dietary supplements. In fact, last year Consumer Reports estimated that our passion for these products costs us over $15 billion; more than $150 per person and that didn’t even include the amount that we spend on vitamins. Unfortunately, emerging information shows that we’re often not getting what we’ve paid for, or worse, we can be taking in products that can actually impair our health.

In this consumer driven market, products tend to target the most popular problems or conditions including infertility and pregnancy. Unfortunately the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have identified a growing trend of tainted products. Many have been found to be contaminated with toxic plant material, poisonous heavy metals and bacteria that can create various illnesses. Worse still, the supplements that have been confirmed to be problematic are believed to be a small fraction of the growing problem. How did we get to this point? It dates back to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) under which vitamins, minerals, botanical products, amino acids and tissue extracts were all classified as “dietary supplements.” According to this regulation these products are presumed to be safe and can be marketed to consumers with no pre-release testing and very little oversight. The end result has been a growing list of consumer complaints, possible health complications, and uninvestigated claims of efficacy.

In reality, anything that promotes health can also have adverse effects. This is as true for supplements as it is for medications. That’s why as more of these products target men/women wanting to conceive or women that are already pregnant it is important to be your own advocate; both as a consumer and as a patient. Especially since a growing number of supplements are tainted with impurities and unlisted ingredients.

In 2007 the US FDA published a report titled “Survey Data on Lead in Women’s and Children’s Vitamins.” I find it disturbing that the investigators concluded that of the 324 products tested they contained levels of impurities that were considered “safe/tolerable exposures.” Yet, they all tested positive for lead! As a healthcare provider and patient advocate I’m outraged People shouldn’t unknowingly purchase and consume products that introduce toxins into their body. Fortunately there are steps that you can take to protect yourself and your family:

• Go organic—A growing number of studies show that organically produced products are higher in health promoting vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. By choosing organic products when you can, you’ll decrease your need to supplement your healthy diet.

• Be an informed consumer—Since most supplement manufacturers don’t voluntarily hire agencies to monitor the quality of their product, investigate the quality of the ones you are using. Independent agencies like Consumer Lab test and report on the quality of many supplements.

• Notify your healthcare provider of everything that you’re taking—A growing number of products have been found to be deliberately tainted with active ingredients including prescription medications not approved for use in the United States. Therefore it is important that your doctor know about everything that you’re taking in case you develop a reaction to your supplement or experience an adverse response due to how it interacts with your other medications.

• Periodically re-evaluate your needs—Most dietary supplements have not been well tested despite the claims to the contrary. I recommend that my patients reconsider each product that they’re using at least once a year by asking themselves two questions. First, why did I start this? Second, is it meeting or exceeding my expectations? If you’re not satisfied with these answers discontinue anything that isn’t specifically recommended by your healthcare provider.