Are Supplements Safe? 4 Things You Should Know

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Are supplements natural immunity- and longevity-boosters, or should you beware what’s in that bottle? That specific question has been a source of major buzz in the health and nutrition world in recent years—and there are a variety of safety concerns that warrant consumer consideration and care.

According to a 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, supplements are responsible for some 23,000 ER visits a year, many among younger adults with existing medical conditions hoping for energy or weight-loss benefits. Even if they seem natural, they’re not necessarily without risks. Daniel Vigil, MD, a family and sports medicine physician at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center explains some of the big supplement concerns you should keep in mind before adding any to your regimen.  

Supplements Are Unregulated

Vigil says any supplement discussion must begin with the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. “This basically states that supplements are not subject to approval, and have to be shown harmful before being removed from the market,” he says. “The bottom line is that the buyer should beware.” Unlike food, the FDA does not currently regulate supplements — so almost anything can end up on shelves for consumer purchase.

There Could Be More Ingredients in a Supplement than the Label States

Supplement investigations at major retailers have made big news in recent months, proving all ingredients are not necessarily disclosed—and may or may not be safe. In real-life, in-clinic experience, Vigil has seen supplements laced with thyroid hormone, prozac, viagra and metabolites of amphetamines, among other substances. “One woman was experiencing a lot of nervous shaking,” he says. “She was started on a treatment plan, but eventually, lab tests showed her body was overloaded with thyroid hormone.” Vigil says the hormone will rev the metabolism and cause you to lose weight—but can also deliver a host of other anxiety-like side effects.

Supplements Might Be Helpful—Just Get Them from the Proper Source

According to Vigil, most negative supplement experiences arise from industrialist producers — generally produced overseas, landing on the shelves of mass retailers. If you’re looking for something safe, he suggests trying supplements from an herbalist. “You never really know what you’re getting, so it comes down to trust,” Vigil says. “I live in California with a lot of Chinese herbalists, who create natural supplements with roots in the garden. They’re growing them themselves. They prepare the supplements themselves, so it’s an original source.” 

Always Check with Your Doctor or Pharmacist about Drug Interactions

If one serving is good, then more is better? Not true, says Dr. Vigil. It’s always important to take supplements as directed on the label—but also check with a doctor or pharmacist before taking at all. “Always check with a physician before about any interactions with existing medications,” says Vigil. “There are so many supplements out there, and it’s uncommon to see interactions, but some do, which is why we always recommend checking in.”

Your doctor can also let you know if it’s safe to take certain supplements if you have a medical condition. For instance, Vigil says the caffeine in some supplements might cause sensitive systems to feel jittery and nervous, or put those with a heart problem at higher risk of a heart-related event. Similarly, supplements should be locked up in a cabinet with other medications, away from the reach of little hands; overdosing and choking are risks to beware. Be careful and be safe with your supplement use.

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