Exploring Human Potential

Supplements: What You Don’t Know Can Kill You

Posted on | October 21, 2009 | 3 Comments

Mike Magee MD

About 114 million Americans consume dietary supplements every day in America. That’s 1 out of every 3 citizens and 1 out of every 2 adults. What’s included in the general supplement waste basket? Vitamins, minerals, botanical products, amino acids and tissue extracts. Before 1994 herbal products were considered food additives and regulated by the FDA. That meant that manufacturers had to show proof of safety and conform to proper labeling of benefits and risks. Not anymore. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act presumed these things to be safe, and now they are marketed with minimal oversight.1

Consumers are largely unaware. They think the government is on the job, checking their safety and their labeling. That’s not true. And a lot of doctors are unaware as well. One study of primary care doctors showed that 1/3 thought dietary supplements required FDA approval.2 They don’t. They also didn’t know that problems with the supplements are supposed to be reported to the FDA.

This lack of knowledge is all the more alarming considering what’s in these products including toxic plant material, heavy metals and at times bacteria. But beyond that, they’re increasingly also contaminated with prescription medicines, experimental drugs, and drugs that have already been rejected for approval by the FDA. What kind of drugs? Stimulants, steroids, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety drugs,  and diet suppressants – some at doses three times mormal. And not just one drug contaminant, but frequently combinations of illegal drugs.1

Many of the worst offenders sell over the Internet, but investigators frequently find them on traditional shelves in the US.1 And since patients and their doctors are largely unaware, these supplements are often overlooked when a patient comes to the doctor’s office sick. Many of the products come from overseas, especially China, but there have been convictions in the US, like California’s American Cellular Labs raided in 2009 for producing supplements that contained anabolic steroids.3

My best advice for patients and their doctors? Maintain a high index of suspicion when it comes to supplements. If a patient turns up sick, don’t forget to check if they’ve taken supplements; and if you have any suspicion, send the pill to a lab to be analyzed and inform the FDA. As for Congress, give the FDA authority to properly regulate supplements. It’s an action that’s long overdue.


1. Cohen, PA American Roulette – Contaminated Dietary Supplements. NEJM. 361;16, October 15, 2009; 1523-1525.

2. Ashar BH et al. Physicians’ understanding of the regulation of dietary supplements. Arch. Int. Med.2007;167:966-9.

3. Lai V, et al. Severe hepatic injury and adulterated Chinese medicines. BMJ, 2006; 332:304-305.


3 Responses to “Supplements: What You Don’t Know Can Kill You”

  1. Mike Magee
    October 22nd, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    Supplements Vs. Pharmaceuticals
    I do agree with proper labeling of supplements etc and if that is what you mean by regulation, we are on the same page. But if you also mean that I would not have easy access to supplements etc…now you are taking away my freedom to decide what is best for me.

    When western medicine hails prevention instead of just treating symptoms and starts to see the whole person and not just their parts….maybe then fewer people will be self advocating by taking supplements. Who started the pill popping frenzy for all our ills in the first place? Aren’t the frequent drug company advertisements suspect? They spend millions trying to convince us all, that we either have a condition or that pill is our answer to all life ills. What about the rediculous drug prices and oversights by the pharmacuetical industry, like recalls after the harm has been done

    How many hospital visits are due to supplements vs over perscribed and regulated pharmacueticals with serious side effects. Research supports the benefits of many supplement/vitamins – Vit. D3, St. Johnwort’s, Omega’s. I for one would rather take my chances taking supplements. If you are interesting in regulating something, target the cosmetic industry and the poisons and hormone disruptors that are not regulated. How many times a day is each individual putting toxins on their body, using shampoo, lotions etc. that ultimately gets into our bloodstream and potentially cause havoc on the body.


  2. Mike Magee
    October 22nd, 2009 @ 9:08 am

    RE: Supplements: What You Do Not Know Can Kill You

    Thanks much for your important comments, especially the issue of “self-advocating”. But I don’t feel this is an issue of “either-or”. All three issues – supplements, over-marketing and overuse of pharmaceuticals, and safety/toxicity of cosmetics – require reliable oversight, information transparency, and reasonable checks and balances. Addressing all three is low hanging fruit which would significantly improve overall population health and support the growth of a mature and rationale health consumer movement. As for individual freedom, I think we need to always consider this within the integrated sphere of individual-family-community-society rights and responsibilities.


  3. [ weird things ] | when legal loopholes run wild…
    September 2nd, 2018 @ 7:37 pm

    […] This is the same law which allows homeopaths to sell sugar pills sprinkled with water they say has magical properties, radiating special mystical energies best explained by rambling technobabble, or a horrendous mangling of physics. Claiming that it’s holistic medicine that treats the whole body, not just the disease (whatever that means), lets them sell whatever they want and make tens of billions of dollars a year doing it. And they’re so good at hiding this lack of regulation in 3 point font of barely legible scrawl on their products, a third of the people buying them don’t even know they’re not FDA approved and aren’t required…. […]

Leave a Reply

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons