Supplement Safety: Is Your Multivitamin Really Boosting Your Health?

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With the population aging and an increasing number of people facing chronic conditions ranging from heart disease and diabetes to cancer and autoimmune issues, consumers are increasingly hitting the health food store in search of a magic pill to cure what ails them.

About one out of three Americans report using supplements instead of prescription or over-the-counter drugs to maintain or improve overall health, prevent disease, lose weight, treat disease and relieve bothersome symptoms.

There is a concern about taking supplements without medical supervision. According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), there’s no solid evidence to show that taking even a simple multivitamin promotes health. Instead, research suggests taking supplements could create more problems than it solves.

Supplements Unregulated

According to public polls, most dietary supplement users believe that supplements are both safe and effective — and that they’re regulated like over-the-counter medications. Unfortunately, they’re wrong.

While the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) enables the Secretary of Health and Human Services to ban substances that have known toxins, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have the manpower to ensure all supplements meet minimum standards for effectiveness and safety.

When the DSHEA was passed in 1994, there were only 4,000 supplements on the market. Now, there are more than 50,000. Without standardized regulation processes, those supplements may be contaminated with harmful chemicals, fail to meet labeled ingredient concentrations and may even have toxic levels of ingredients.

A few scary statistics:

  • Three out of four Americans take vitamins or other supplements on a daily basis.
  • Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe that taking high-dose supplements provides added health benefits.
  • About one-third of emergency calls to the poison control center are associated with dietary supplements.
  • Fewer than 1 percent of supplement-related adverse events, such as coma, seizure, heart attack, liver and kidney failure and death, are reported to the FDA.

A Call for Change

In February 2019, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., pushed to strengthen the DSHEA regulation and develop new enforcement strategies.

The FDA issued warning letters to more than a dozen companies selling dietary supplements with unproven claims that they prevent, treat or cure diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and diabetes. The idea: To rein in the estimated $40 billion industry that is pushing powders, pills and potions that could cause harm.

The regulatory process has a lot of cleanup to do with products that already exist in the market. Until that happens, your best bet for staying safe includes:

  • Only purchasing products that are labeled GMP pharmaceutical grade and certified.
  • Not taking supplements unless they are indicated by a doctor or medical provider.
  • Not taking supplements in place of prescribed medications.

Playing it Safe

Anything that has the power to heal also has the potential to harm. Supplements may have negative side effects, contain harmful food dyes and other ingredients, and interact with medications. 

In fact, once a nutrient leaves the plant and enters a bottle, powder or pill, it rarely harbors the same beneficial effects. Instead, research suggests that these nutrients extracted from the place of origin can have adverse effects on health.

It’s always best to get nutrients through whole foods. I recommend eating a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet and reducing animal-based protein, saturated fats and processed foods. Whole plant foods have thousands of disease-fighting, health-promoting nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.


Still not sure whether or not the supplement you’re taking is necessary? Henry Ford’s functional medicine doctors and registered dietitians can guide you. To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Categories: EatWell

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