Are Dietary Supplements Worth the Risk?

Many people assume that all supplements are safe simply because they are sold as “natural.” As the use of supplements increases, a growing number of potential hazards are associated with their use. Did you know that use of ginkgo could increase the risk of bleeding? Or that kava containing dietary supplements can cause severe liver damage and large amounts of zinc can have detrimental effects on cholesterol levels?

A recent Journal of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (JPEN) systematic review revealed that, with a few possible exceptions, dietary supplements offer no benefits to a well-nourished adult that consumes a Western diet and, in many cases, can prove harmful.

There was an exception—calcium supplements, which are strongly recommended to protect women against bone fractures. They were associated with a slightly decreased risk of premature death.

“Based on existing evidence, we see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements,” unless there is a medical reason or deficiency of a particular nutrient, wrote the study authors, most of whom are affiliated with the University of Minnesota, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

At least half of U.S. adults regularly use vitamins, minerals or dietary supplements, according to government estimates. Dietary supplements are defined by law as any products intended to supplement the diet that contain a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanicals; an amino acid; or “a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake.” According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), dietary substances include enzymes or tissues from animal organs or glands.

Consumers spent about $11.8 billion on vitamins and minerals in the last year alone, according to the Nutrition Business Journal, which tracks supplement sales.

Some people assume that the FDA would keep unsafe supplements from ever reaching the market. In fact, most supplements do not require FDA approval and many reach the marketplace without undergoing a safety review.

In order to remove a dietary supplement form the market, the FDA must prove that the product is unsafe. It took over 30 deaths before the FDA was able to accomplish that task with the supplement Ephedra. For years, Ephedra was legally sold and widely used as an aid in weight loss and to boost sports performance and energy. In 2004 the FDA banned sales of the product when it determined that use of the supplement was linked to significant adverse health outcomes, including heart issues and strokes. Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to prove that a supplement is unsafe and many potential dangerous products remain on the shelves.

Two studies added to the evidence that taking extra doses of vitamins can do more harm than good.  A study of vitamin E and selenium use among 35,000 men found that the vitamin users had a slightly higher risk of developing prostate cancer, according to a report published in The Journal of American Medical Association. The latest data based on longer-term follow-up of the men in the trial, found that users of vitamin E had a 17 percent higher risk of prostate cancer compared with men who did not take the vitamin.

A separate study of 38,000 women who participated in Iowa Women’s Health Study found a higher risk of dying during a 19-year period among older women who used multivitamins and other supplements compared with women who did not, according to a report in The Archives of Internal Medicine. The researchers found that women who took dietary supplements such as vitamin B6, folic acid, magnesium, zinc, copper, iron and multivitamins, faced a slightly higher risk of death than women who did not.  The risk of dying early was 2.4 percent higher among women who took a multivitamin compared with women who did not.

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported that two studies of beta-carotene found higher lung cancer rates, and another study suggested a higher risk of precancerous polyps among users of folic acid compared with those in placebo groups.

Among the several vitamins and minerals studied, researchers said a strong link to increased death came from iron, which is often prescribed for anemic people. Women in the study who took iron supplements were 3.9 percent more likely to die than those who did not take iron.

The study was partly funded by the National Cancer Institute and the Academy of Finland, which is backed by the Finnish government. It is the most recent of several studies released in the past few years to question the long-term health effects of widely used vitamin supplements.

The use of dietary supplements has increased steadily since 1994 , when Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which defined that supplements were to be regulated as foods, not as drugs, and were exempt from the stricter regulations placed on drugs, such as the requirement to prove that they are both safe and effective.

However, manufacturers are allowed to promote their dietary supplements and vitamins aggressively, as long as they do not make any health claims.

In conclusion, the study authors found that with the possible exception of vitamin D in elderly patients and omega-3 fatty acids in patients with a history of cardiovascular disease, no data support the widespread use of dietary supplements in the U.S. and other Western countries. It should be known that the data suggest that certain commonly used dietary supplements, including beta-carotene, vitamin A and vitamin E may be harmful.

Experts say the best way to ensure that you are getting all the nutrients you need is still to eat a well-balanced diet. Not only will you save yourself some money, you won’t have to worry if the supplements are causing your body more harm than good!

You can contact one of our Gacovino Lake attorneys at 1-800-246-HURT (4878).

Related Posts