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NCCIH Research Blog

Approach Dietary Supplements with Caution

October 16, 2015

John S. Williamson, Ph.D.

Branch Chief

Basic and Mechanistic Research in Complementary and Integrative Health Branch

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

This week has been an active—and sobering—one for news about the safety of dietary supplements. One story receiving a lot of attention is a study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine in which researchers estimate that at least 23,000 emergency department (ED) visits per year in the United States from 2004-2013 were attributed to adverse events related to use of dietary supplements.

The researchers, a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), examined nationally representative data from 63 EDs. Strikingly, more than one-quarter of the ED visits in the study involved young adults ages 20 – 34. Weight loss products or energy products were involved in more than half the visits for this age group (mostly due to cardiac symptoms). In fact, nearly three-quarters of all ED visits involving cardiac symptoms (palpitations, chest pain, or tachychardia) were caused by weight loss or energy products. Cardiac symptons were also commonly noted in visits due to body building products (49.8%), and sexual enhancement products (37.3%).

In past years, the FDA has warned of possible health risks from dietary supplements due to many reasons, such as interactions between supplements and prescription drugs; contamination of supplements by synthetic prescription drugs; and unknown contaminants due to unknown production quality.

NCCIH has had a longstanding commitment to build the base of objective evidence on the safety and efficacy of natural products, including supplements. We work hard to examine whether they work, and if so, how they work. We have stringent requirements to make sure that the supplements tested in our studies are the same from lot to lot, in where they are collected and how they are manufactured. NCCIH’s role is to conduct scientific research—this includes identifying the bioactive substances in supplements affecting human cells, organs, the immune system, and the brain as well as research on interactions.

We also provide objective, evidence-based information to help people make informed decisions about using complementary approaches, including supplements, such as our fact sheets and ebook on herbs; Web portals on dietary and herbal supplements and information about erectile dysfunction/sexual enhancement, weight control, and energy; and a newsletter and CME program for health professionals about herb-drug interactions.

Remember, “natural” does not always mean safe, and if a product’s claims seem too good to be true, they probably are.

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