Consumer Reports recently identified hazards that might surprise the large swath of American adults -- more than 50 percent -- who take vitamins, herbs or other nutritional supplements.
The list of hazards was distilled from interviews with experts, published research and CR's own analysis of reports of serious adverse events submitted to the Food and Drug Administration, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The hazards CR found include:
• Supplements are not risk-free. More than 6,300 reports describing an excess of 10,300 serious outcomes -- including 115 deaths, more than 2,100 hospitalizations, 1,000 serious injuries or illnesses, 900 emergency room visits and some 4,000 other important medical events -- streamed into the FDA from supplement companies, consumers, health care providers and others between 2007 and mid-April 2012. CR notes that the reports by themselves don't prove that supplements caused the problems, but the raw numbers are cause for concern. Current laws make it difficult for the FDA to order a problem product off the market. To protect yourself, search the FDA's website at www.fda.gov for warnings, alerts or voluntary recalls involving a supplement you are thinking of taking. If you suspect you're having a bad reaction to a supplement, tell your doctor.
• Some supplements are really prescription drugs. According to Daniel Fabricant, director of the FDA's Division of Dietary Supplement Programs, dietary supplements spiked with prescription drugs are the "largest threat" to consumer safety. Many recalled products have the same or similar active ingredients as prescription drugs such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis) and sibutramine (Meridia, a weight-loss drug that was removed from the market in 2010 because of evidence that it increased the risk of heart attacks and strokes). Others contained synthetic steroids. To protect yourself, consult your doctor if you are having trouble in the bedroom (it could indicate an underlying health problem).
• You can overdose on vitamins and minerals. Unless your health care provider tells you that you need more than 100 percent of the recommended daily intake of a particular nutrient, you probably don't. Mega-doses of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K can cause problems, and even some standard doses may interfere with certain prescription medicines.
• You can't depend on warning labels. For one thing, the FDA doesn't require them on supplements with one important exception: iron. To protect yourself, make sure your doctor or pharmacist knows what supplements and prescription drugs you are taking or thinking of taking.
• Heart and cancer protection: not proven. Omega-3 pills and antioxidants are widely thought to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, respectively, and millions of women take calcium to protect their bones. But recent evidence published in a June 11 online report from the New England Journal of Medicine casts doubt on whether those supplements are as safe or effective as assumed. To protect yourself, lay off the antioxidant supplements and reduce your cancer risk safely by quitting smoking, avoiding excessive alcohol and eating a healthy diet.
Consumer Reports: www.consumerreports.org