Are Dietary Supplements Safe?

October 30, 2015

Back in 2013, Linda Wong, a transplant surgeon in Hawaii, saw an unusual amount of cases in which her patients were coming in with liver failure. They complained of nausea and showed signs of jaundice. Before the month was over, eight of Wong’s patients had abnormal liver test results.

Seeing the similarities, but unsure of the cause, Wong began investigating the patients’ lives in search of a common factor. After eliminating the usual suspects, alcoholism, Tylenol overuse, and hepatitis, Wong found it. Each of the eight patients had been taking the dietary supplement OxyElite Pro.

OxyElite Pro had been designed to help consumers build muscle and burn fat, but instead, it was poisoning their livers. Wong called in the CDC and the FDA, which confirmed what she had found.

The FDA sent a warning to the company that made OxyElite Pro, which led to a complete recall—a rare occurrence for products like this. Further investigation revealed that OxyElite Pro had been attributed to 100 cases of acute hepatitis or liver failure by the winter. Half of those cases required hospitalization.

Unfortunately, a recent study published by the New England Journal of Medicine shows that there are an estimated 23,000 hospital visits each year due to dietary supplements. 2,000 of those are reportedly bad enough to justify hospitalization. Researchers came to this conclusion after combing through hospital records going back 10 years for 63 different institutions.

The FDA does little to regulate the use of dietary supplements, and it’s estimated that about half of everyone in America is currently taking some form of it. Supplements are an increasingly popular form of alternative medicine and rake in as much as $6 billion every year.

Because the FDA views these supplements in the same way they do food, makers are able to tell consumers whatever they want, whether it’s true or not, as long as they include a list of ingredients. They aren’t made to tell the truth about what their products do or don’t do and are also not required to include warnings of possible side effects.

Wong is still not convinced that the NEJM study is not “vastly underestimating” the problem. She believes that since the study only looked at patients admitted through the emergency room, there could be an even greater number of people affected that were admitted directly without going through the ER.

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