According to the National Institutes of Health (2016), one in three American adults consume dietary supplements.
Dietary supplements fall under a variety of categories, ranging from vitamins and minerals to amino acids, herbs, and extracts. Most supplements help ward off or prevent diseases and chronic illnesses. For instance, folic acid prevents some birth defects, while vitamin D and calcium prevent muscle cramps and fractures. It is important to note, however, that some supplements are not only ineffective, but also dangerous. In other words, some supplements come with side-effects, ranging from mild-to-severe. In addition, thousands of effective (and ineffective) supplements are sold in the United States each year.
Truth-be-told, little is known about the safety and effectiveness of supplements, primarily because they are not regulated or reviewed by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). In fact, the FDA assumes that supplements – all of them – are considered safe and harmless until proven otherwise. And, since the government does not guarantee that supplements are effective and safe, it is extremely important that you take precautions when purchasing (and ingesting) dietary supplements. So, to answer the question posed above – yes, supplements can harm your health. Listed below are health concerns that should be considered before adding (or increasing) dietary supplements.
Loss of Nutrients
Some supplements can cause a loss of nutrients. For instance, in some cases, vitamin supplementation can lead to a reduction in the number of phytonutrients in the body. Phytonutrients are plant-based chemicals that can prevent certain types of cancers like: stomach and prostate cancers, and cardiovascular (heart) diseases. They can be found in a variety of healthy foods (i.e. legumes, veggies, fruits, and nuts).
Therefore, even though supplements can be beneficial, it is important to understand that you may still become vitamin and/or mineral deficient. Taking a multivitamin may slightly decrease this risk, however, the risk for toxicity may increase. The best option – a healthy, well-balanced diet, consisting of a wide-range of fresh, organic fruits and veggies, along with whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins will ensure that you receive all of the nutrients your body needs to function at an optimal level.
Low Fiber Intake
Most supplements do not contain fiber, which can lead to a low fiber intake. A low fiber intake can lead to constipation and abdominal discomfort. So, replacing healthy, nutritious foods solely with vitamin supplements can wreak havoc on your health and well-being. Fiber (a plant-based, hard-to-digest piece of food) is extremely important because it rids your body of waste and balances your intestinal tract. One of the best things about fiber is that is “fills you up,” which delays hunger, regulates your bowels, and lowers your blood cholesterol levels.
As mentioned above, some supplements are extremely effective, especially if you are deficient in one or more areas, however, they can also be ineffective. And, because they are not monitored by the FDA, there still needs to be more research in dietary supplementation (i.e. safety and effectiveness) before it can be touted as beneficial. Unfortunately, most people take supplements believing that they will “fix” their health concerns, but in reality supplements rarely “fix” moderate-to-serious health issues. However, supplements can replace loss nutrients, which can lead to a boost in energy and a better mood.
Note: Nutrients from fresh, organic foods tends to be more effective (and safer) than taking supplements. Supplements are “man-made” chemicals that mimic the vitamins found in food, therefore, it is better to get those nutrients from fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy, lean meats, and whole grains. For example, vitamin C (derived from foods) can lower your risk of throat, breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers. It can also normalize high blood pressure and aid in the healing process. In contrast, vitamin C supplements do not offer the same benefits as foods like oranges.
Dietary supplements can quickly become toxic, if the dosage is too high, you take them for too long, you have an allergy to the additives or preservatives in them, or if you don’t need them, but take them anyways. Thankfully, most vitamins are water-soluble, which means that are removed from your body every time you urinate. In other words, the excess vitamins are flushed from your body, preventing them from becoming toxic to your system. Other vitamins (i.e. vitamin E, vitamin A, and vitamin D) are fat-soluble, which means that every time you ingest them, the properties are stored in your tissue and liver.
As a result, it is easy to “overdose” on them when the levels get too high in your body. This usually occurs over a lengthy amount of time, as the vitamins accumulate in your body. An unhealthy supplement “build-up” can cause health issues like: renal (kidney) damage, gastrointestinal distress (upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea), and birth defects. It is recommended that healthy adults take 10,000 IU (or less) of vitamin A, 1100 IU (or less) of vitamin E, and 1,000 IU (or less) of vitamin D, per day, to prevent a toxic “build-up” of fat-soluble vitamins.
Lastly, some supplements have been known to elicit adverse reactions and side-effects. Supplements can interact with prescribed (and over-the-counter) medications, triggering or exacerbating health problems, therefore, it is recommended that you consult with your physician before taking supplements of any kind. For instance, vitamin E commonly interacts with prescription medications, causing uncomfortable adverse reactions.
In addition, people, who have a blood-clotting problem (the inability to clot) and those, who are on blood-thinners, should never ingest vitamin E, because it is a blood thinner and can cause increased bleeding, or in some cases, hemorrhaging. Moreover, those, who are currently undergoing chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments should refrain from taking vitamin E because it can decrease the effectiveness of the prescribed treatment medications.
American Heart Association. (2016). Cholesterol, fiber and oat bran. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/HealthyEating/HealthyDietGoals/Whole-Grains-and-Fiber_UCM_303249_Article.jsp#.V5PsMbgrIdU
Bellows, L. & Moore, R. (2012). Fat-soluble vitamins. Colorado State University. Retrieved from http://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/fat-soluble-vitamins-a-d-e-and-k-9-315/
Kohen, P. (2010). The hidden dangers of dietary supplements. The Dr. Oz Show. Retrieved from http://www.doctoroz.com/article/hidden-dangers-dietary-supplement
National Institutes of Health. (2016). Dietary supplement fact sheet: Vitamin a. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/
National Institutes of Health. (2016). Multivitamin/mineral supplements. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/MVMS-HealthProfessional/
National Institutes of Health. (2016). Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid). Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-Consumer/
Nutrition. (2016). Questions to ask before taking vitamin and mineral supplements. Retrieved from https://www.nutrition.gov/dietary-supplements/questions-ask-taking-vitamin-and-mineral-supplements
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (2016). How other phytochemicals help protect against cancer. Retrieved from https://www.pcrm.org/health/cancer-resources/diet-cancer/nutrition/how-other-phytochemicals-help-protect-against
United States Department of Agriculture. (2016). Phytonutrient facts. Retrieved from https://www.ars.usda.gov/aboutus/docs.htm?docid=4142