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Are Diet Supplements Dangerous?

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If something is either essential or good for the health, surely more of it must be good for you? Such at any rate is the reasoning of half the American population who, between them spend more than $30 billion on dietary supplements, that is to say $200 a head per annum. All things considered, these supplements must be pretty safe, unlike prescription drugs, for few people die or have serious side-effects from them. Whether they do any good, other than as placebos, is another question entirely of course.

According to an article in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine there are 85,000 different supplements and combinations of supplements on the market, meaning that each of them sells, on average, approximately $375,000 worth per year. Given the popularity of some, this must mean that many are in a very small way of business indeed. It is the job of the Food and Drug Administration to monitor the safety of all these preparations: a task, one might have supposed, quite beyond the capacity of even the largest bureaucracy.

Not all the supplements are safe. One, called OxyElite Pro, caused hepatitis and even liver failure, first spotted by a liver transplant surgeon in Honolulu. It was used by body-builders to "burn off" fat, and it is isn’t difficult to find people on the internet who mourn the fact that the product has been withdrawn from the market, despite its potentially dangerous side-effects (one person died).

Dietary supplements do not undergo the rigorous testing, either as to efficacy or safety, that pharmaceuticals undergo. The author of the article points out that many supplements contain newly-devised amphetamine-like stimulants, anabolic steroids, untested chemical analogies of Viagra and various antidepressants, and weight-loss substances that have already been banned from the pharmaceutical market.

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The FDA cannot keep up for a number of reasons. Although doctors are supposed to report suspected side-effects to MedWatch, an on-line reporting site, many do not and under-reporting is very common. In fact, adverse side-effects are often recognised first by astute practitioners or local, rather than national, authorities. For example, when a badly-manufactured vitamin supplement resulted in more than 200 cases of selenium poisoning, it was a local public health authority, not the FDA, that implicated the supplement.

The author suggests a solution to a problem whose size (in respect of harm done) is unknown, in addition to a law that is now passing through Congress requiring the manufacturers to register their products with the FDA and provide it with more safety information. In essence, the author calls for more co-ordination between the various bodies that garner information about supplements.

But what, if anything, is to be done about the 150,000,000 Americans who feel they need to take supplements, either to grow muscular or to live forever? Where do their desires and superstitions come from? That dietary supplements are good for you is now as firmly ingrained in modern consciousness as that certain miracle-working icons could save you from various diseases was among elements of the Russian peasantry in the days of the Tsar and devastating epidemics. It seems that in the modern world everyone is skeptical except of what he should be. Here is a customer review of OxyElite Pro, used by body-builders:

I am still using this product and result can be observed by me. Every alternate Friday I used to measure my progress, although little changes can be seen, but that is the positive thing to me, I am dam sure that within six month I can fully reduce my fat from the body.

Of course, none of us can get by without faith in something.

(Artwork by shutterstock.com / Aaron Amat / rangizzz)