When former basketball Lamar Odom was rushed to the hospital, after reportedly taking 10 herbal “Viagras,” he made the news. Ask at the ER and you’ll hear that reactions to supplements regularly send people rushing for help.
Americans make more than 23,000 visits to emergency rooms every year, alarmed by their response to something they consumed to enhance their health, according to a 9-year federal government study. That conclusion came from records at 63 emergency departments across the country between 2004 and 2013.
Most of the time, the ER visitors were people between the ages of 20 and 34 who had chest pain, palpitations, or a high heart rate after taking weight loss or energy products. Let’s hope that on the way home they realize that losing weight and keeping it off will require more than a quick fix. All of us looking for more energy and fewer pounds actually need some combination of a change in diet, portions, exercise, stress relief, and sleep.
Another big group — a fifth of the total — were children who swallowed a supplement before an adult could stop them. Answer: Keep those bottles well out of reach.
Older adults need to watch out for choking and swallowing problems. They should take only one pill at a time, with plenty of fluid, and avoid large capsules.
Americans have been taking steadily more of one kind of supplement or another since the late 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Multivitamins remain the most popular (though there’s no evidence they help anyone who isn’t malnourished or deficient). You might think that few are venturing beyond vitamins or minerals, but, in 2012, about 18 percent were taking some other kind of supplement, usually herbs. In the Mountain states, that number goes up to almost 29 percent.
You might think that supplements are safe because you can buy them without a prescription. Not so. These products aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so you can’t be sure what’s in them. Generally, the claims on the bottle are vague and not backed up by science. You may be wasting your money — and putting yourself in danger.
Be aware that herbal pills or solutions may be contaminated. Especially in high concentrations, they you should take them with the same care as a prescription drug. For instance, like drugs, they can interfere with other medications. Other dangers are more subtle. Beta-carotene, vitamin E, and possibly high doses of vitamin A supplements may increase death rates, argue the five authors of an editorial in the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine, “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.
Isn’t something labeled “all natural” okay? No. Nature runs a big gamut from orchids and sunsets to snake venom and Ebola. Besides, nothing in a capsule in a bottle is “all natural.” When we buy “health products,” we’re too often buying an illusion of health that consoles us for the fact that we’re not living healthily. It’s a “product,” after all.
December 02, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA