The evidence is stacking up: Dietary supplements aren’t worth your money. The message from many doctors and scientists alike is simple: If you don’t need them, don’t bother taking them. But if people want to buy them, and they believe these pills, potions and powders make them healthier, what’s the harm, 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.
For the investigation, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers collated 10 years’ worth of nationally representative data on emergency department visits to 63 hospitals in the U.S. After clinical records were combed through, cases in which the visit was explicitly attributed to the use of dietary supplementation – defined as herbals, complementary nutritionals (like amino acids) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) – were pooled for analysis.
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 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.
It’s also important not just to look at big numbers and draw conclusions without taking into consideration the context. In a statement, the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) estimates, from the stated figure of 23,000, that “less than one tenth of one percent of dietary supplement users experience an emergency room visit annually.” In addition, they point out that this figure is slimmed down further if things like eye and ear drops are excluded, which they claim were “inaccurately included.”
It’s also important to note that a large proportion (37.6%) of those in the over 65 category ended up in the emergency department because of choking, something that has already been addressed through the introduction of powdered or liquid alternatives and soft gummies.
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.