More than half of American adults take dietary supplements . People often assume that supplements are held to the same safety standards as medications, or that "natural" equals safe. But a new study published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology reported a nearly 50% increase in calls to US Poison Control Centers about dietary supplements .
Dietary supplements are not considered drugs, so the FDA does not require rigorous testing in clinical trials before they can be sold to the public. In the study, researchers found there were 274,998 calls to Poison Control Centers over dietary supplements from 2000 to 2012—and the annual rate of these calls increased by 49.3% from 2005 to 2012.
About 70% of calls were for accidental exposure to supplements in children younger than 6 years old—and the vast majority of these cases didn't require the child to be taken to a health care facility. But the calls for people age 6 and older tell a different story. In the majority of these cases, people took the supplements intentionally and/or had an adverse reaction, with up to half requiring a trip to a health care facility.
Serious medical complications occurred most frequently with energy products and botanicals. Energy products, including drinks, are advertised to increase alertness and mental performance and often contain high levels of stimulants such as caffeine. Approximately 45% of the energy product calls involved unintentional intake by children under 6 years old. And 1% of all calls relating to energy products required admission to a critical care unit. Previous studies have also found that energy products, especially in young children but also in adults with preexisting conditions, can lead to heart problems, seizures, and breathing issues .
Of the botanical supplements, yohimbe accounted for the highest proportion of serious medical complications. Yohimbe has been used primarily for sexual dysfunction and weight loss, but there have been case reports of heart problems, lung problems, and death . In the study, 3.2% of calls relating to yohimbe required admission to a critical care unit, and one death was reported.
If you take dietary supplements, it is important to keep them secure and away from children. You should also be cautious about mixing supplements and medications. Some supplements may be safe when taken alone but have dangerous interactions when taken with other supplements or medications. Keep a list of all prescription and non-prescription medications as well as supplements you are taking, and ask your physician and pharmacist about possible side effects and interactions. If you do choose to take supplements, check their safety on reputable sources like Drugs.com or our ratings. You can also check the chemical analysis results of specific brands at Labdoor.com, which include the amounts of active ingredients as well as any harmful ingredients or contaminants. More tips on making informed decisions about supplement use are available at FDA.gov.
Yuko Hara, PhD, is Director of Aging and Alzheimer's Prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation. Dr. Hara was previously an Assistant Professor in Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where she remains an adjunct faculty member. Her research focused on brain aging, specifically how estrogens and reproductive aging influence the aging brain's synapses and mitochondria. She earned a doctorate in neurology and neuroscience at Weill Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Cornell University and a bachelor's degree in biology from Cornell University, with additional study at Keio University in Japan. Dr. Hara has authored numerous peer-reviewed publications, including articles in PNAS and Journal of Neuroscience.
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