The supplements we often turn to as beauty or dietary aids may be doing more harm than good, according to some important recent findings from Consumer Reports. Despite populating the shelves at pharmacies and health-food stores across the country, these over-the-counter aids can be contaminated, can sometimes contain toxic ingredients, and often falsely advertise in terms of their benefits. All signs point to a lack of formalized government regulation surrounding these supplements, which can inadvertently lead to organ damage, cardiac arrest, or even cancer.
Health Supplements to Avoid
These are the seven supplement ingredients to stay away from and how they're used, as reported by Health:
- Caffeine powder: weight loss, increased energy, and athletic performance
- Green tea extract powder: weight loss
- Kava: anxiety and insomnia
- Aconite: inflammation, joint pain, and gout
- Chaparral: weight loss, inflammation, colds, rashes, and infections
- Comfrey: cough, heavy periods, stomach problems, and chest pain
- Methylsynephrine: weight loss, increased energy, and athletic performance
"These products don't always contain what they claim to," explains Ellen Kunes, the health content team leader at Consumer Reports. "That could mean you're just wasting your money on something harmless—but the reality is, a lot of it is not harmless.… Many times, the FDA only gets involved after they get a report that there's a problem." Some lesser side effects of these ingredients may include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, breathing problems, and impaired driving, or it could be much more serious than these and cause irreparable damage.
Lack of Testing
Kunes also warns that consumers need to know the government does not regulate supplements the same way drugs are regulated. This means companies can often get away with selling their products over the counter without conducting stringent tests first. Government inspections just cannot keep up with the size of the industry.
Probably the most at risk are people with pre-existing medical conditions, who often take supplements in addition to medications that could cause dangerous interactions. The severity of the risks depends on the quality of the ingredients and the length of time they are taken. Dangerous side effects and interactions can also be triggered by taking these with other supplements, not just medications.
Unfortunately, it may not be enough to simply check labels, since these ingredients can be listed under other names. You can find their aliases published on Consumer Reports.
Staying Healthy Without Supplements
Kunes contends that eating a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, exercising on a regular basis, getting the recommended six to eight hours of sleep every night, and monitoring your stress levels are more than enough to make you feel happy and healthy. "We recommend getting your health from food and healthy habits, rather than popping a pill."
Starr RR. Too Little, Too Late: Ineffective Regulation of Dietary Supplements in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2015;105(3):478-485. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302348
Prinsloo G, Steffens F, Vervoort J, Rietjens IMCM. Risk Assessment of Herbal Supplements Containing Ingredients that are Genotoxic and Carcinogenic. Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 2019;49(7):567-579. doi:10.1080/10408444.2019.1686456
Pure and Highly Concentrated Caffeine. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. September 21, 2018
Patel SS. Green Tea Extract: A Potential Cause of Acute Liver Failure. WJG. 2013;19(31):5174. doi:10.3748/wjg.v19.i31.5174
Kava. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. August 2020
Ekor M. The Growing Use of Herbal Medicines: Issues Relating to Adverse Reactions and Challenges in Monitoring Safety. Front Pharmacol. 2014;4. doi:10.3389/fphar.2013.00177
Asif M. A Brief Study of Toxic Effects of Some Medicinal Herbs on Kidney. Adv Biomed Res. 2012;1(1):44. doi:10.4103/2277-9175.100144
Bode AM, Dong Z. Toxic Phytochemicals and Their Potential Risks for Human Cancer. Cancer Prevention Research. 2015;8(1):1-8. doi:10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-14-0160
Stohs SJ. Safety, Efficacy, and Mechanistic Studies Regarding Citrus aurantium (Bitter orange) Extract and p -Synephrine: Studies Regarding Citrus aurantium Extract and p -Synephrine. Phytother Res. 2017;31(10):1463-1474. doi:10.1002/ptr.5879
Dietary Supplements. National Institutes of Health. March 11, 2020
Tips for Dietary Supplement Users. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. February 23, 2018
Supplements: They’re Not As Safe As You Might Think. Cleveland Clinic. March 3, 2020