What’s in your supplements?

Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

If you’re taking an over-the-counter supplement that wasn’t recommended by your doctor, you’re not alone — about half of the US adult population takes one or more supplements regularly. We spend more than $35 billion on these products each year.

While it’s important that your doctor knows what you’re taking, there are many supplements out there, and it’s likely your doctor won’t know what advice to give you about a lot of them. There are a number of reasons for this but the two biggest are:

  • Most supplements are not rigorously tested as a prevention or treatment for conditions for which they are promoted.
  • The supplement industry is not regulated the way prescription drugs are. The ingredients on the label may not accurately reflect what’s actually in the supplement.

As a result, the major concerns of your doctor — is it safe? is it effective? — may be impossible to address.

Does the supplement label matter?

Of course it does! At the very least, you’d like to know that what’s on the label is what you’re actually taking. However, past studies have found that supplement labels may

  • inaccurately describe the dose of the supplement, so you could be getting more or less than the label says.
  • list the correct drug ingredients but fail to mention that it could interact with other drugs or worsen a condition you have. For example, chondroitin (often taken for symptoms of arthritis) may cause bleeding if you have a condition that makes you prone to bleed, or if you take a blood thinner, such as warfarin (Coumadin).
  • contain contaminants — often the hidden ingredient is added in order to enhance the effect of the supplement. For example, banned stimulants have been found in many weight loss supplements.

While these problems have been known about for many years, there is little oversight to confirm the purity of the ingredients or the accuracy of the label.

Studies find tainted supplements or misleading labels are common

In the past, research on a variety of supplements has found concerning discrepancies between what’s on the label and what’s in the bottle. One recent report looked at three memory supplements: two of them contained none of the active ingredient, and one of those contained unidentifiable chemicals that raise serious questions about its safety.

Another, much larger study finds that the problem of tainted supplements — and lack of oversight — is widespread. Researchers analyzed warnings issued by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 2007 and 2016. These included 776 dietary supplements that contained contaminants, including

  • a prescription drug, sildenafil (Viagra), in supplements sold for sexual enhancement.
  • sibutramine (Meridia), found in weight loss supplements. This drug was approved in 1997 for weight loss but was taken off the market in 2010 when studies linked it to heart attacks and stroke.
  • steroids or drugs with steroid effects in supplements marketed as muscle builders.

About 20% of the contaminated supplements contained more than one unapproved ingredient. In more recent analyses, more than one-third of the contaminated supplements were found by sampling products ordered online, and another third arrived by international mail delivery.

Unfortunately, the FDA announced voluntary recalls for less than half of these tainted supplements.

What’s a supplement user to do?

One option to consider is to simply stop taking the supplement. If you don’t have a condition requiring treatment with a dietary supplement and if it’s not recommended by your doctor, it might be best to rethink your use of them. Alternatively, there are organizations that certify supplements and can provide a measure of confidence in their ingredients. These include the NSF International Dietary Supplement Certification and the US Pharmacopeia (USP) Dietary Supplement Verification Program. If your doctor has recommended supplement use, check with him or her before making any changes.

Bottom line

The problem of adulterated dietary supplements is unlikely to go away anytime soon. But I am hopeful that the FDA will take a more active role on this issue and help protect consumers from dietary supplements that may contain hidden ingredients.

In the meantime, if you can’t be sure what’s in a supplement, you may be risking your health even as you’re trying to improve it. The safest thing may be to stick with the tried and true (and tested). Ask your doctor and pharmacist if you have questions. But don’t be surprised if they say little more than “buyer beware.”

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

Comments:

  1. Bob

    Cheaply made vitamins are an issue(rip off) and are primarily riding on the back of good well made supplements which you see in published studies. People take vitamins because of some advertisement citing published studies or from a verbal or expert recommendation. But getting pharmaceutical grade supplements that have gotten positive published results is a buyer beware proposition that requires the person to ask questions and to do some research. Pharmaceutical grade are well made and tested so you would expect to pay more. But paying more is no guarantee. Generally you want to see if the supplement has 3rd party certification like GMP, ISO etc and also if you can talk to them too establish what they are like or trustworthiness and how and where they source their ingredients and if they test for contaminants . But it should be kept in perspective that even though it is fairly unregulated it is not recording any deaths as published in US Poison Control Center and yet it seems counter intuitive that under the most regulated regime there are quite a few.

  2. Josey

    I have pain in my calf n foot n it never goes away it hurts bad to walk I had this pain since September the pain never stops do u think I have this disease please help me can’t take the pain n my foot is always freezing.Thank You Josey

  3. Jamshed Rabadi

    This is a very good article. I was always surprised the way the supplements are promoted at the cost of human health. These supplements should be banned as they are health hazard.

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