Are Supplements Safe? Should You Take Them or Not?

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by David Bunnell

I’m 67 and I’ve been taking supplements for at least 40 years. From time-to-time I’ve tinkered with my supplement regime, adding or subtracting one substance or another for this reason or that. The ones that I’ve consistently use (and swear by) include vitamin B complex, D3, omega-3s, magnesium, turmeric and a probiotic.

I don’t take a multivitamin because I think they contain too little of too many things.

I share a list of my supplements and dosage with my doctor and she has been mostly supportive–even suggesting other supplements for me to take.

I would strongly recommend everyone do this.

It’s been at least 10 years since I’ve had so much as a serious cold and I can’t remember the last time I had the flu, which has happened once or twice.

I credit much of this to the supplements.

But these days I’m freaking out! I don’t really know if the supplements I’m taking are real or not, or if the dosages are accurate, if they are really helping me or even harming me.

The recent article in The New York Times, “Herbal Supplements Are Often Not What They Seem,”  was a wake up call, not just for me but millions of other Americans who annually spend $12 billion dollars on supplements.

According to the article, researchers in Canada randomly bought 44 bottles of popular herbal supplements sold by 12 companies and tested them for content using a fairly new technology called DNA barcoding.

The results were simply horrible.

59% of the products tested contained plant species not on the labels. Only two of the 12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers.

One-third of the supplements tested showed outright substitution, meaning there was not a single trace of the substance advertised on the bottle. One bottle of St. John’s wort, which has been shown to be effective for mild depression, contained an Egyptian yellow shrub called Alexandrian senna, a powerful laxative. Another contained nothing but rice.

Echinacea supplements, used by millions to prevent and treat colds, were actually ground up bitter weed, Parthenium hysterophorus, linked to rashes, nausea and flatulence.

I have tried both St. John’s wort and echinacea and found them not very effective–perhaps now I know why!

These test involved herbal supplements and not vitamins, minerals and other types. But, did you know the FDA only has very limited authority over supplements and doesn’t even evaluate them for safety and effectiveness before they go on sale? They only act after receiving complaints.

Here’s a rather chilling statement I found on the FDA website: “Generally, [supplement] manufacturers do not need to register their products with the FDA or get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.”

The FDA does have regulations for the manufacturing of supplements which applies to both domestic and foreign companies, contained in a document titled “21 CFR part 111,” but it is entirely up to companies to comply with these regulations. It is also up to the companies to “make sure that product label information is truthful and not misleading.”

Don’t you wish the IRS trusted you as much as the FDA trusts the supplement manufacturers?

A new bill in Congress sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) would help consumers tell the difference between dietary supplements that are safe and those that have potentially serious side effects or drug interactions.

Not too surprisingly, the supplement industry has launched a vigorous campaign against the enactment of this bill using scare tactics–charactering the proposed law as a “direct threat to our health and longevity,” and warning of “impending carnage” if it is passed.

Reminds me of how fluoridation in our water was once thought by some to be a communist plot.

I am not a big fan of the FDA and see it as a conflicted agency that has too often erred on the side of big pharmaceutical companies, but something must be done. I want to continue taking supplements but gee, it would be nice to know I’m getting what’s on the label and not endangering my health with poisonous substitutes.

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