Bitter Pills

Nutritional supplements may have unintended consequences

Sometimes the pursuit of better health leads straight to the emergency room.

New findings indicate that some twenty-three thousand emergency room visits each year are attributed to adverse events related to dietary
supplements. Lead author Andrew Geller is a senior associate with the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the School of Medicine and a medical officer with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study of data from 2004 to 2013 showed visits commonly involved heart problems related to weight loss or energy products among young adults twenty to thirty-four years old. Another area of concern was the number of cases involving unsupervised ingestion of supplements by children, which accounted for one-fifth of ER visits.

Among adults aged sixty-five and older, 37 percent of ER visits for supplement-related adverse events involved swallowing problems such as choking on supplement pills.

“These data are important because dietary supplements are presumed to be safe and are regulated differently from over-the-counter or prescription products,” says Geller. “Unlike pharmaceuticals, which have to demonstrate both benefits and safety, dietary supplements can be sold without that information. Perhaps these findings can help target interventions to reduce safety risks.”

According to the article, the product categories most commonly implicated were multivitamins, iron, supplements for weight loss, and supplements for sleep. Herbals, complementary nutritionals containing amino acids, and micronutrients found in vitamins and minerals are all considered dietary supplements. Although these products can’t be marketed for the treatment or prevention of disease, they are widely sought to address symptoms or illnesses as well as to improve overall health. In 1994, there were about four thousand of these products on the market; in 2012, the number had grown to fifty-five thousand. 

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