Many doctors and dietitians will tell you that supplements are unnecessary and a balanced diet will provide you with all the nutrition you need and more. Supplements just don’t compare with a nutritional diet and don’t have the same protective effects against certain types of cancers and other lifestyle diseases. However, there are some cases where supplements can play a helping hand in managing a condition or making up for a deficit. For those who don’t require them, what harm can they do, right?
Perhaps it’s time for a rethink of this commonly held idea. A large new study has estimated that supplements send about 23,000 people to the emergency room in the U.S. each year, and around 10% of those visits result in hospitalizations .
The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine and was based on 10 years worth of data on visits to the emergency department across 63 hospitals in America. The visits that were due to dietary supplementation (herbals, complementary nutritionals, micronutrients) were then analysed. Despite people seeing supplements as harmless, the results were quite alarming.
Based on this information, collected between 2004 and 2013, the researchers calculated that around 23,005 individuals end up in the emergency room annually because of reactions to these supplements, and that an estimated 2,154 of these end up hospitalized.
Breaking it down a bit, almost 30% of those treated were young adults, although the elderly were twice as likely to need treatment. A worryingly large number of visits also involved cases where unsupervised children had accidentally ingested a supplement. But when those were removed from the equation, the large majority of visits were due to herbal or complementary nutritional products, with those taken to boost energy or lose weight commonly to blame. Events those people tended to be seen for were chest pain, palpitations and an abnormally high heart rate.
The purpose of the study in not to label supplements as dangerous but to rather highlight misuse or when they can become harmful. Anyone can buy supplements without a prescription and they don’t usually know a great deal about them other than what they have seen on an ad. However, there can be certain drug interactions, excessive intakes or blood thinning effects.
The take-home message here is not necessarily that supplements are “dangerous”; rather, the study highlights an important problem with this industry. Unlike prescribed or over-the-counter medicines, supplements aren’t required to undergo safety testing or gain FDA approval. This is of particular concern for people who are taking medications that supplements can interfere with. And with greater than 50% of Americans estimated to be popping at least one supplement daily or occasionally, this is an issue.
Whether or not supplements offer any benefit to those who don’t need them remains a contentious topic with mixed evidence, but regardless, not just in light of these findings, there is a clear need for stricter regulation of these products.