According to a number of individuals and corporations in the dietary supplement industry, there has not been a fatality from taking dietary supplement products. Is this true? Are dietary supplements safe while you take prescription drugs? Do they have possible fatal interactions? Are they safe by themselves? We did a search of the last fifteen years to see if these claims are true.
“Over 60 billion doses of vitamin and mineral supplements per year in the USA, and not a single fatality. Not one.” This quote comes from a posting by Dr. Mercola quoting the Alliance for Natural Health. No deaths? But what about harm? Below are a few examples.
Calcium supplements have been widely used by older men and women. However, in little more than a decade, authoritative recommendations have changed from encouraging the widespread use of calcium supplements to stating that they should not be used for primary prevention of fractures. This substantial shift in recommendations has occurred as a result of accumulated evidence of marginal antifracture efficacy, and important adverse effects from large randomized controlled trials of calcium or co-administered calcium and vitamin D supplements. Calcium supplements…also cause kidney stones, acute gastrointestinal events, and increase the risk of myocardial infarction and stroke. Any benefit of calcium supplements on preventing fracture is outweighed by increased cardiovascular events (Bolland et al. 2013).
Placing the word “death” into the search box of NatureClaim comes up with many results. Yohimbe lists death through heart failure if one is taking the wrong dosage. But even if the dosage is followed exactly, the site lists twenty-one adverse side effects. So can they cause harm? Read on:
Liver toxicity related to herbs and dietary supplements is a viable issue. Even though the liver can regenerate itself, a seriously damaged liver can in and of itself cause death. Can dietary supplements be one cause of liver poisoning?
Over the past 50 years, approximately 21 herbs (minus germander and usnic acid that are no longer sold) and 12 dietary supplements (minus the nine no longer sold and vitamin A and niacin due to excess intake) posed a possible risk for liver injures in certain individuals. The herbs with the most number of reported publications (but not case studies) in descending order, were germander, black cohosh, kava extract, and green tea extract (Brown 2017).
The Wall Street Journal on October 23, 2018 joined in the debate about dietary supplement safety: The Illegal Ingredients of Supplements by Sumathi Reddy. In the article, the author states that one should do due diligence in taking dietary supplement. But how can you do that? These supplements may be full of illegal ingredients (i.e., unknown drugs including unapproved prescription drugs) and they can be tainted with poisons. One cannot do due diligence when the bottle states safe ingredients, but ignores the dangerous and oftentimes illegal ones. In other words, are you actually taking the product you did your due diligence on?
According to Brown (2017),
Less than 1 percent of Americans experience adverse events related to dietary supplements, and the majority was classified as minor, with many of these related to caffeine, yohimbe, or other stimulant ingredients. The number one adulterant in dietary supplement is prescription drugs, followed by New Dietary Ingredients (NDI) not submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – both are illegal and not dietary supplement, but rather “tainted products marketed as dietary supplements.”
It seems there may be a problem with dietary supplements. They are not FDA regulated, there are no laws in place to protect the consumer and enforcement is complaint driven. But are dietary supplements deadly? We will answer that question and others in the other parts of this series.
Alliance for Natural Health. FDA Guidelines a Perversion of Congressional Intent. Accessed April, 2019, from https://anh-usa.org/fda-guidelines-a-perversion-of-congressional-intent/.
Brown AC. An overview of herb and dietary supplement efficacy, safety and government regulations in the United States with suggested improvements. Part 1 of 5 series. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2017.
Mercola. Dietary Supplements: Over 60 Billion Doses a Year and Not ONE Death, But Still Not Safe?. Accessed April, 2019, from https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/04/23/defend-your-right-to-access-safe-dietary-supplements.aspx.
Reddy S. The Illegal Ingredients in Supplements. The Wall Street Journal. 22 October 2018.
By Michael H. Brownstein