How to Avoid Dangerous Supplement Surprises

Colored pills, tablets and capsules

On my show, I frequently talk about supplements and foods that I think have the potential to improve my viewers’ health and wellness. But especially given recent news about supplements not always containing what they advertise, I want to remind everyone that not all supplements are right for everyone. Many leading national health organizations and I agree that you should always consult your doctor before taking a new supplement – and here’s why.

They may not be what they seem. Alarming new research shows that many herbal supplements, which by law do not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), contain fillers or hidden ingredients not advertised on the label. The study, published in BMC Medicine, used DNA testing to examine the ingredients of 44 different herbal products made by 12 different companies. About 60% of the supplements they tested contained plant products not listed on the label, including several that are potentially dangerous, such as Senna alexandrina, a plant with laxative properties, and feverfew, a weed that can cause a variety of painful symptoms and may be dangerous in pregnancy.

Many other supplements tested contained unlisted fillers such as rice, soybeans and wheat, which may pose a risk to people with serious allergies such as celiac disease. A large percentage of the supplements did not contain the main ingredient they advertised, or contained it only in minimal amounts. The authors of the study chose not to reveal which brands they had tested. You can read more about the study here.

This is one reason why I do not endorse or put my name on any particular brand of supplement. If you ever see someone using my name or image to sell a specific product, please let me know. I consider these people to be dangerous, as they are using my name to potentially put you at risk.

They may not be right for you. While supplements are often safe, people taking certain medications should avoid certain supplements. For example, vitamin K may interfere with some blood thinners, while ginkgo can actually make some people more likely to have bleeding. St. John’s wort, sometimes used to ease depression, may also increase breakdown of some antidepressants, making them less effective. Many, if not most, supplements have not been adequately tested in pregnant and breastfeeding women and should be avoided. There is a lot of ongoing research investigating the long term health effects of supplements.

Asking a doctor who is familiar with your health and medications about a supplement before you start reduces the risk that you will accidentally put your health in danger. In addition, always pay attention to the instructions on the supplement label to see if there are any warnings about who should and should not take the supplement. And remember never to substitute these supplements in place of your usual medications unless instructed by a doctor.

For many of the supplements we recommend on the show, you can read about whether they might be right for you on our website.

You might be able to get your nutrients a better way. Taking too much of certain vitamins and minerals can actually cause health problems. Too much vitamin C, for example, may increase risk of kidney stones and vitamins A, D, E and K can be stored in the body for very long periods of time, raising the risk for vitamin toxicity. Avoid megavitamins and make sure you check the % daily value on the bottle so you don’t get too much.

Whereas it can be relatively easy to overdose on some vitamins or minerals if they come in pill form, it is very difficult to ingest too much simply from eating foods. The vitamins and minerals in foods are often much easier for your body to absorb – plus you get the benefit of the fiber, protein and taste that they contain. So before reaching for a new supplement, ask your doctor for the most effective and safest way to get the nutrients you need.