Have you heard the news about supplements? According to some recent reports…
âDietary supplements and other herbals send 23,000 people to the emergency room every year.â
Are you concerned? 23,000 trips to the emergency room sure sounds like a lot!
Any adverse reaction or hospitalization caused by a supplement is cause for alarm. It could be easily argued that some supplement companies are just as guilty as some drug companies for pushing products on vulnerable, unsuspecting people.
The truth is, it is seriously wrong for either industry to put profits over people.
But before you rush to flush your multivitamins down the toilet, take a step back and keep things in perspective.
Sometimes, these studies make it seem like the supplement industry is running willy-nilly with no government supervision. That’s simply not true.
You may remember a previous post on our blog – What you Probably Don’t Know About How Supplements are Regulated:
“While there are certainly scam artists working in the black market of the supplement industry, and while itâs true that nutritional supplements donât undergo the exact same scrutiny as pharmaceutical drugs, the supplement industry actually is regulated by the FDA. The biggest difference is that supplements do not need to be FDA approved.”
As with any study, there are many factors to consider. This one was no exception.
You can draw your own conclusions on the safety of supplement usage, but whether you like the results of a study or not, you should always ask:
1) Who funded the study?
Is there financial gain for a specific outcome for the supplement or drug company?
2) Was all data compiled in the study included in the final results?
You’d be surprised how much negative data is omitted in studies and clinical trials to push a product (supplement or drug) on the market.
3) Who has the most to gain from the results?
Is it the consumer or the manufacturer?
In this new study from the New England Journal of Medicine, the one that has been making headlines, nearly 1/3 of the hospitalizations reported in the study were for weight-loss and energy-boosting products.
Is it fair to lump the entire supplement industry together with energy drinks? Who should be held responsible for young people going to the ER after downing multiple 5-hour Energy Drinks at a party?
Yes! Believe it or not, 5-Hour Energy Drinks are considered supplements. Yet teens will also abuse them to get a buzz.
The NEJM study makes this conclusion about emergency room visits attributed to supplements:
“Such visits commonly involve cardiovascular manifestations from weight-loss or energy products among young adults and swallowing problems, often associated with micronutrients, among older adults.”
So, the biggest problems were essentially heart palpitations (cardiovascular manifestations) from energy drinks and weight loss supplements, as well as senior citizens who had trouble swallowing the supplement and got it lodged in their throat.
Weight loss and energy-boosting products often come under scrutiny for slick marketing or even illegal practices. Many less-than-reputable companies have taken advantage of vulnerable consumers looking for a quick fix. It’s no surprise many of hospitalizations were from these products.
The latter could happen with any sort of pill. Choking on a supplement has absolutely nothing to do with the safety of a dietary supplements ingredients.
That’s just the beginning…
So Many Questions, So Few Answers.
Statistics can be murky and there are many variables in the data. So it’s wise to read any research with a bit of caution.
Of course, we don’t know all of the details of this study. But you do have to wonder…
What other drugs were these patients taking?
We don’t know if the cases referenced involve people who were also taking medications. Certain drugs and supplements can have negative interactions.
That’s why Natural Healthy Concepts constantly reminds its customers to check with a healthcare professional before beginning supplementation, especially if you are on prescription medication.
Did they exceed the recommended dosage of the specific product?
Taking too much of just about anything could be bad for you, including most over-the-counter drugs. But no one is calling for a ban on Tylenol, even though you could kill yourself if you took enough Acetaminophen.
Many people think taking more than the recommended dose will increase their results. That’s not always true and never safe. Those recommendations are made for a reason.
How many of the people in this study were in poor health to begin with?
One doctorÂ referenced in a Vox article concerning the NEJM study is a primary liver transplant surgeon. She started investigating patients with liver damage and found one particular weight loss supplement (OxyElite Pro) to be at fault.
But did her patients consult a physician before they used the product in question?
Again, any good supplement manufacturer or re-seller will advise patients to talk with their doctors before taking something new.
There is no excuse for any supplement company to put dangerous or questionable ingredients in their products, but anything can cause an adverse reaction in someone who’s health may be in question or has an unknown allergy, etc. Even excessive amounts of certain foods may make someone sick.
Let me repeat, 23,000 trips to the ER and 2,000 hospitalizations is indeed alarming and no one wants to see anyone suffer, but even pharmaceutical drugs, which are often perceived to be far safer, can carry significant risks.
Consider the following…
Here is a list of 35 FDA Approved Prescription Drugs Later Pulled from the Market
FDA approval may give some people peace of mind, but it’s no guarantee for safety.Â In fact, Harvard University reports that “new prescription drugs have aÂ 1 in 5 chanceÂ of causing serious reactions after they have been approved.”
That same article goes on to state that:
“Few know that systematic reviews of hospital charts found that even properly prescribed drugs (aside from misprescribing, overdosing, or self-prescribing) cause about 1.9 million hospitalizations a year.”
1.9 million hospitalizations a year for prescriptions drugs – not including overdoses, self-prescribed or mis-prescribed medications.
23,000 emergency room visits for supplements – many of which may have included abuse of the supplement or perhaps simply someone choking on them.
You do the math. What seems to be the bigger problem here?
An article from ProPublica states that, “Data compiled by the US Food and Drug Administration has linked as many as 980 deaths in a year to drugs containing acetaminophen.”
You don’t see the media comparing the 23,000 emergency room visits attributed to dietary supplements with the actual deaths caused by legally prescribed medications. By the way, some estimates indicate prescription drugs cause as many as 100,000 deaths per year.
The Natural Products Association also has some issues with the methodology and findings of this study. In an article in response to the recent reports, the NPA pointed out that the findings were in direct contrast with the FDA’s own tool for documenting adverse reactions. Dan Fabricant, PhD, the NPA’s executive director and CEO explains…
“This so-called study excludes that very data, which is more than puzzling because it was written in part by FDA officials who know this.â
For instance, adverse events reported to the FDA in 2012 totaled 3,249 cases – far lower than the 23,000 cases per year average the study cites. The NPA adds that when you consider the wide usage of supplements the numbers are still low no matter how you look at them.
“Even if the study estimates are accurate, the number of hospital visits suggested to relate to dietary supplements would represent 0.0001687 percent of the 136.3 million hospital visits each year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).”
No matter how much you might like or dislike the results of a study, remember you may not be getting all the facts.
Or perhaps the media is portraying the point-of-view that is the most sensational. After all, more eyeballs and more clicks mean more money from advertisers.
Whether you’re pro-supplements or rely on pharmaceuticals for your healthcare, you must be your own advocate for your health. Your life could depend on it!
We must all be industry watchdogs!
If you’re still concerned about the safety of supplements – check out this video from the Alliance for Natural Health – USA:
If this study has impacted your decision about using supplements, we’d like to hear from you. Let us know in the comment section below.
Glad you made these points. I read the article in Consumer Affairs newsletter I subscribe to and clicked on the link for the source of the publisher. New England Journal of Medicine.
Most interesting and I think illustrates how they can play fast and loose with statistics is the first sentence in the paragraph under “RESULTS” which reads:
“On the basis of 3667 cases, we estimated that 23,005 (95% confidence interval) . . .”
Unless I’m misunderstanding what I’m reading, looks to me like they just kinda picked a big number by projecting out those 3667 actual cases which were the basis for their ESTIMATE.
Is this how they do business over there?
Thank you for this article. I totally agree with everything you said. I researched it after I heard it, and found out that ER visits for dietary supplements are a drop-in-the-bucket compared to prescribed medicine and ER visits and deaths per year, yet the media and some doctors are trying to scare everyone away from vitamins and such. And it was less vitamins/herbs than it was energy drinks and diet pills. Shame on the media and mainstream doctors for trying to sensationalize this!!!