4 posts tagged “health supplements”

Supplement safety smarts

Posted 11 months ago by

It’s easy to see the temptation of taking dietary supplements. Getting vitamins, minerals and herbs or other “health foods” in pill form sounds simple. And some of the products’ claims — “Live longer!” or “Have more energy!” — may seem enticing. But even though most supplements don’t require a prescription, it’s best to check with your doctor before taking them because they may come with risks — read on to learn more.

Healthy intentions

The BBC recently highlighted the potential risks in a piece called “The food supplement that ruined my liver.” As Texas resident Jim McCants recalls, he was hitting age 50 and hoping to prevent the heart problems that his father died from, so he sought to make some lifestyle changes. These included taking a green tea supplement, which wound up damaging the Texas resident’s liver so badly that he needed a transplant. Years later, McCants still struggles with kidney disease and abdominal pain — all because of a product he thought would make him healthier.

McCants isn’t alone. More than 50% of U.S. adults take a dietary supplement, often in the form of multivitamins, calcium, folic acid or vitamin D. And supplements are nothing new. The Chinese have been using herbal medicines for thousands of years, and you can even find some of them on drugstore shelves to this day.

It is possible to have a vitamin or mineral deficiency or imbalance, and to need some types of supplements because of this or for other health reasons (like needing folic acid during pregnancy). Take supplements as recommended by your doctor or licensed healthcare provider — but be sure to discuss any questions, concerns or adverse effects.

Risky business

How can products that are seemingly healthy be potentially hazardous? A lot of supplements contain ingredients that can actually harm rather than help your body. This is especially true if you have a health condition or take prescription or over-the-counter medication. Here are some common supplement pitfalls:

  • Medication mix-ups. Vitamins B-6, C and E can make certain kinds of chemotherapy less effective. Vitamin K can prevent warfarin (a common blood thinner) from working correctly. Vitamin B-6 may also hinder how other drugs work, such as anticonvulsants and Levodopa (a Parkinson’s disease treatment). St. John’s wort can make birth control pills and antidepressants less potent. (Keep reading for resources on possible supplement/treatment interactions.)
  • Surgery hazards. If you’re scheduled for surgery, taking some supplements can make anesthetics less powerful or lead to high blood pressure or bleeding. Give your doctor a heads-up about any supplements when he or she first mentions that you’ll need an operation.
  • Pint-sized dangers. If you’re pregnant or nursing, certain supplements — as well as prescription and over-the-counter medications — can harm your baby. Be sure to check with your doctor before taking anything.
  • Age effects. Supplements are geared primarily for adults. Dosage recommendations haven’t really been created for children. And supplements may work differently in people older than age 65.

Other risky supplement behaviors include:

  • Mixing different supplements
  • Using supplements instead of drugs that your doctor prescribed
  • Overdoing it with supplements — just to name a few examples: Taking too much iron can lead to vomiting and liver damage. Excess amounts of vitamin A (hypervitaminosis A) can result in headaches and weaker bones. Too much B-6 (called B-6 toxicity) may lead to lack of muscle control (ataxia), numbness, gastrointestinal issues and other symptoms.

Less oversight

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate dietary supplements in the same way that it does with prescription and over-the-counter medications. What a label says about a product’s effects and ingredients may not be entirely accurate. However, if it turns out that a supplement is dangerous or that the makers made false claims, the FDA can issue warnings or take it off the market.

Doctor-pharmacist tag team

Ask your physician what he or she recommends in terms of taking — or not taking — dietary supplements and what’s best for you. And tell your doctor right away about adverse effects you’ve experienced while taking a vitamin or supplement, just as you would with prescription drugs.

Another great resource is right around the corner — your local pharmacist. Make it a habit to swing by the drugstore’s pharmacy counter, even if you’re just buying an over-the-counter treatment. As a medication specialist, your pharmacist knows how drugs affect the body and will be able to help you determine if a specific product has the potential to interact with any of your prescription medications. Try to use one pharmacy for all your prescriptions so your record will be complete and easy to access.

Do your research

Besides talking with your doctor and pharmacist about dietary supplements, vitamins, minerals, herbs and over-the-counter treatments, here are some resources that may be useful:

  • Supplement specifics. For more information on individual supplements, how they work and what common dosages are, check out the handy list on MedlinePlus.
  • Drug interaction checkers. Are your medications safe to take together? Try checking one of these sites (although they’re not exhaustive, so a doctor or pharmacist is still your best resource): RxISK and Drugs.com
  • Vital vitamin and mineral info. What amount of vitamins and minerals do you need each day? Find out with this chart from the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines. Helpful hint: Click “Next column” or “Previous column” in the upper right to find the relevant gender and age range.
  • Medication record charts. Keep track of all your treatments (prescription and over-the-counter) and your supplements on your PatientsLikeMe profile and with this smart chart from the FDA. Give an up-to-date copy to your doctor and pharmacist at each visit.

It’s worth a little extra work up front to do your research and keep your doctor and pharmacist in the loop.

“Your local pharmacist is an excellent resource to help you decide if supplements might be right for you,” says Maria Lowe, Pharm.D., from the PatientsLikeMe Health Data Integrity Team (our group of in-house healthcare professionals). “As pharmacists, we are not only trained to be experts in drug therapy but also in various methods of self-care. It’s our job to help our patients find the optimal way to combine those treatment modalities whenever we can.”

What steps do you take (or will you take now) when it comes to supplement safety? Join PatientsLikeMe or log in to talk about this topic with others who are living with health conditions.


Why is dietary advice so all over the place? Nutrition experts explain

Posted September 18th, 2018 by

If you’re confused about what kind of milk to drink, what type of cooking oil is “healthiest” or whether the Mediterranean diet is the ticket to heart health, you’re not alone. Nutrition experts dig into the complexity of dietary research.

Digesting dietary advice

The constant churn of nutrition news, books and blog posts — combined with the growing number of food options at the grocery store — can feel contradictory and make your head spin when it comes to making healthy diet decisions.

“As a dietitian, even I get tripped up when new studies that come out that question my beliefs,” Washington Post writer Cara Rosenbloom admits in a recent article on “how to handle ever-changing nutrition science.” She interviewed Dariush Mozzafarian, the cardiologist and researcher behind this 2018 BMJ analysis of nutrition science.

They make the case that we have an issue with how we “digest” food advice:

  • We take it very personally. “If you learn in physics that there was new research about a black hole, you may say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ but you don’t change your habits because the science has changed,” Mozaffarian says. But people these days tend to swiftly avoid or adopt foods (such as wheat/gluten or coconut oil) based on new information or faddish magazine reports that may not warrant dietary changes.
  • We cling to every new study. New nutrition research comes out weekly but people (and policymakers) would be wise not to focus on single studies, Mozaffarian argues. Understanding the relationship between foods, wellness and disease takes a long time.
  • We don’t have centralized government guidelines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are just a few sources of government recommendations on nutrition. Mozaffarian says a cabinet-level position that centralizes or coordinates nutrition guidelines would help eliminate confusion.

Other issues + pointers

Other nutritionists point out that dietary science is still in its infancy (see this infographic), and most nutrition studies are observational (rather than randomized control trials, which offer more evidence about “X may cause Y or Z”).

Researchers behind a major study on the Mediterranean diet and heart health recently had to retract and re-analyze their work because it was flawed (although version 2.0 reached the same conclusion — the Mediterranean diet can be beneficial for those with cardiac risks).

Even if you’ve figured out your own eating plan or nutrition philosophy (like Michael Pollan’s famous one: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”), articles about diet still make great clickbait. Look for pieces that ask questions and cite research and credentialed nutrition experts, rather than making blind declarations or heavily promoting certain products. And always check with your own doctor or care team before making dietary changes or even taking new vitamins or supplements.

Do you follow a certain eating plan or style? What do you struggle with most when it comes to eating (or understanding nutrition advice)? Join PatientsLikeMe or log in to connect with the community in this forum discussion. As a member, you can also add any supplements or diet types (such as Mediterranean or low-carb/high-protein) to your profile (under the “My Health” tab) to assess them and track a more complete picture of your health.

Share this post on Twitter and help spread the word.