Health Magazine has embarked on a series of stories about the dangers of herbal supplements. I found the first story in this series to be both eye-opening and disturbing.
The story starts with an anecdote about a woman who developed ventricular tachycardia–an irregular heartbeat–after taking an over-the-counter diet supplement. She assumed because the product was made of herbs, it must be safe.
Millions of people take herbal supplements–often in enormous doses–because they think they’re natural and safer than pharmaceutical products. Fact is, the laws in our country provide little oversight over the makers of herbal supplements, and these remedies can be just as potent as what the pharmaceutical companies make.
According to a poll by Health.com, 83% of people take some sort of supplement sometimes. And 56% of respondents said they believe supplements are safer than prescription and OTC drugs.
I’m not surprised. Some people who find out about Selling the Fountain of Youth tell me that they’re taking super-potent doses of resveratrol–the red wine supplement that was shown in Harvard studies to extend the lives of mice by about 30%. (The same incredible results have not been shown in humans as of yet.)
Yes, you can buy resveratrol over the counter at your local health food store and many other places. And because it’s a non-prescription product, you can take it in super-potent doses if you choose.
But that doesn’t mean it’s safe. As reported here in June, GlaxoSmithKline ended a trial of a resveratrol product because some patients in the trial developed kidney problems. So it worries me when people tell me they’re taking massive doses of the resveratrol they can buy at their local store.
Since late 2007, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has received 2,000 reports of adverse side effects from nutritional supplements, according to the Health story. The report goes on to describe several examples of dietary supplements that contained trace amounts of prescription drugs, some of which could be dangerous.
As of earlier this year, supplement makers must comply with good-manufacturing practices set out by the FDA. The agency could take enforcement actions against those who don’t comply.
In the meantime here’s some advice for anyone who is taking nutritional supplements:
1. Check the bottles of your supplements to make sure they include a seal from US Pharmacopeia (USP). That at least will ensure the supplement contains the ingredients it says it does.
2. Google the name of the supplement and the manufacturer to make sure there are no safety reports on file.
3. Get your doctor’s opinion on any supplement you plan to take.
4. And finally, don’t take enormous doses of anything. Remember, you are self-medicating. And even if you think what you’re taking is perfectly “natural,” that doesn’t mean it’s risk-free.