Will Dietary Supplements Harm You?


Will Dietary Supplements Harm You?

The Takeaway First

You may have heard a report showing that 23,000 emergency room visits every year are due to children and young adults taking dietary supplements. Scary, right? Not exactly. In this post, I’ll talk about why we need to be careful about hype and misinformation, and what you need to do to take supplements safely.

The Details

It has been estimated that 23,000 emergency room visits every year involve children and young adults who have taken dietary supplements (Geller et al., 2015). Every year, 2,100 people are hospitalized due to adverse side effects of supplements. With the exception of sexual enhancement and body building supplements, women are more affected than men.

  • Weight loss and energy products caused over 71% of adverse events with symptoms of faster heart rate, palpitations and chest pain.
  • Close to 60% of the study participants were between 20 to 34 years olds.
  • Reports were collected from 2004 to 2013.
  • Among those 65 years and older, choking on pills, mostly calcium pills, was most prominent side effect.
  • The number of ER visits and hospitalization was only 5% of those from pharmaceutical medications.
  • No deaths were reported from the consumption of dietary supplements.

(Geller et al. 2015)

My Take On This

Comparing dietary supplements to pharmaceutical drugs, a common occurrence, is inadequate. They work much differently and the intelligent use of both can be extremely helpful in improving health. Of course, I tend to begin with natural therapies first and work from there.

But it is worth noting that Geller and his research team did report that the 23,000 hospitalizations caused by supplements was tiny compared to the hospitalizations caused by pharmaceutical meds, but most reports keep ignoring that fact.

It is important to keep in mind that over 700,000 people get hospitalized from using pharmaceutical medicine annually (Budnitz et al. 2005). That’s about 2.5 people for every thousand. Additionally, medical drugs have caused 2,100 reported deaths over the past eight years. (Shepherd et al. 2012)

There are problems in the supplement industry, no doubt. There are tainted herbal sexual enhancement formulas, like what Lamar Odom was taking a few weeks ago. And young kids are notorious for consuming too many supplements designed to make them gain muscle and lose fat.

Also, weight loss supplements can have side effects if consumed at very high amounts because many contain stimulants such as caffeine or bitter orange (sineprhine). Stimulants decrease appetite and burn fat, but when taken at high amounts they can cause heart palpitations and chest pain.

What Should You Do?

Numbers are all relative. In 2013, there were over 4,000 pedestrian deaths compared to 188 by flight. But mortality from airplanes is far more impactful. When huge numbers are thrown at you by the media, they do not mean anything unless there is a reference point.

As always, don’t believe the hype.

A bigger problem than the hype and misinformation is tendency of people to take dietary supplements haphazardly, without expert guidance. Occasionally there will be an unwanted side effect (though this is uncommon) but the most common problem is inefficacy – either from using the wrong combination of nutrients or from too small a dose.

Who should you talk to? Experts in the use of dietary supplements are naturopathic doctors, functional medicine practitioners or certified nutrition specialists (CNS). Experts on the therapeutic use herbs include, but not limited to, professional members of the American Herbalist Guild.

With few exceptions, health store clerks don’t know more than you do about supplements. They just work there.

The Bottom Line

If you have seen that a group of supplements work for you, continue them. The chances of getting an adverse reaction are minimal. Always seek the guidance of an expert. Don’t believe the hype. Be smart. Be well.


Geller AI, Shehab N, Weidle NJ, Lovegrove MC, Wolpert BJ, Timbo BB, Mozersky RP, Budnitz DS. Emergency Department Visits for Adverse Events Related to Dietary Supplements. N Engl J Med. 2015 Oct 15;373(16):1531-40.

Budnitz DS1, Pollock DA, Weidenbach KN, Mendelsohn AB, Schroeder TJ, Annest JL. National surveillance of emergency department visits for outpatient adverse drug events. JAMA. 2006 Oct 18;296(15):1858-66.

Shepherd G1, Mohorn P, Yacoub K, May DW. Adverse drug reaction deaths reported in United States vital statistics, 1999-2006. Ann Pharmacother. 2012 Feb;46(2):169-75.

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