Question of the Week

October 24, 2005


Most people do not take dietary supplements in order to impair the body's ability to function at its best.

"Clearly, people choosing to supplement their diets with herbals, vitamins, minerals, or other substances want to know more about the products they choose so that they can make informed decisions about them. The choice to use a dietary supplement can be a wise decision that provides health benefits. However, under certain circumstances, these products may be unnecessary for good health or they may even create unexpected risks."

Even some well-known and extremely common supplements may be worth reconsidering for certain members of the population.

"One research study funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, found that echinacea is not affective at all in treating children aged 2 to 11.
"Taking vitamin C over long periods of time in large amounts may be harmful. Too much vitamin C can cause severe diarrhea, a particular danger for elderly people and small children."

There may be health benefits for some people when taking supplements. There may be health risks for others. For those who see no health benefits, supplements can range from something that is physically damaging, to something that is simply a waste of money.

"You may find yourself reading articles and watching adverts that claim vitamin supplements are the best things since sliced bread -- a cure for everything and a suitable alternative for a diet that is rich in nutritional value. However, there are both pros and cons for vitamin supplements, and they are certainly not an alternative for good health and good diet."

"[T]hey are certainly not an alternative for good health and good diet."

Supplements can affect your health (either positively or negatively). Either way, to help avoid possible drug interactions, your doctor and your pharmacist need to know what supplements you are taking. Some supplements make prescription medications less effective. Others can have dangerous interactions with medications.

"[B]e sure to consult your doctor or pharmacist before purchasing or taking any supplement. ... Many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects and their safety is not always assured in all users. If you have certain health conditions and take these products, you may be placing yourself at risk."

"[Y]ou may be placing yourself at risk."

"Under the law, manufacturers of dietary supplements are responsible for making sure their products are safe before they go to market. They are also responsible for determining that the claims on their labels are accurate and truthful. Dietary supplement products are not reviewed by the government before they are marketed, but FDA has the responsibility to take action against any unsafe dietary supplement product that reaches the market. If FDA can prove that claims on marketed dietary supplement products are false and misleading, the agency may take action also against products with such claims."

Those trying to sell the products are those responsible for making sure the products are regulated. What does that mean?

"Dietary supplements are not required to be standardized in the United States. In fact, no legal or regulatory definition exists in the United States for standardization as it applies to dietary supplements ..."

So how do you know about the safety and efficacy of a given supplement?

"How safe are they? In many cases, no one really knows. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which normally checks out the safety of foods and medicines before they come on the market, does not check on the safety of dietary supplements before they're sold. The FDA has to wait until it receives reports of problems caused by supplements before it can investigate and ban a dietary supplement. This is what happened with the herb ephedra (also called ma huang or herbal fen-phen) in 2003 when the FDA pulled the supplement from the U.S. market after it was linked to the death of a well-known baseball player. This means that if you take an untested supplement, you are serving as the manufacturer's unpaid guinea pig and risking your own health."

"[I]t was linked to the death of a well-known baseball player."

Countless others died before someone with a name made headlines. Even more died before the drug was pulled from the shelves.

"[Y]ou are serving as the manufacturer's unpaid guinea pig and risking your own health...."

How safe are some supplements? We won't know until thousands more pay the manufacturers to try them and see what effects (bad? good? any?) they notice. Even then, we will only know if these results are somehow documented...

"Adverse effects from the use of dietary supplements should be reported to the FDA. You, your health-care provider, or anyone may report a serious adverse event or illness directly to the FDA if you believe it is related to the use of any dietary supplement product. Report these concerns to MedWatch, the FDA's safety information and adverse event reporting system, by calling 1-800-FDA-1088, by fax at 1-800-FDA-0178 or online at The FDA would like to know whenever you think a product caused you a serious problem, even if you are not sure that the product was the cause, and even if you do not visit a doctor or clinic."

Questions of the Week:
Do you take anything that is considered a supplement? How could you find out about possible drug interactions or side effects for a supplement you are taking or are planning to take? What negative (and/ or positive) effects upon their health have others had when taking these supplements? What do you think your peers and/ or family members know about the supplements they are taking? What can be done to educate them (as well as other teens, kids, and adults) about the possible unknowns and risks a consumer faces when taking a supplement? What can/ should you do if you or someone you know has a negative reaction when taking a supplement?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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