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Is Your Dietary Supplement Making You Sick?


One or more of the dietary supplements in your medicine cabinet may be making you sick, according to a new report prepared by Consumer Reports. Although the report names a dozen ingredients consumers should avoid, the longer list contains at least double that number.

Harmful Dietary Supplement Ingredients

The report is the result of a collaboration between researchers from Consumer Reports and those from an independent research group, Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Experts identified about 25 ingredients from a database of nearly 1,100, earmarking the smaller group as being associated with cancer, coma, kidney and liver damage, heart problems, and death.

To arrive at the final “dirty dozen” ingredients, the experts evaluated adverse events, the availability of the substances, and how aggressively the dietary supplements that contain them are promoted. According to Nancy Metcalf, senior program editor at Consumers Reports, the selection process was “to a certain extent a subjective thing.”

The Dirty Dozen Supplements

Here is the dirty dozen chosen by the experts. You can see more information about these dietary supplement ingredients on the Consumer Reports website, including how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) views these substances.

  • Aconite: Used to treat wounds, joint pain, inflammation, gout. Can cause nausea, vomiting, heart problems, paralysis of the respiratory system, and death
  • Bitter orange: Used for allergies and weight loss. Can cause heart problems, stroke, fainting, and death
  • Chaparral: Used for colds, infections, inflammation, cancer, and weight loss. Can cause kidney and liver problems.
  • Colloidal silver: Use for infections, Lyme disease, psoriasis, food poisoning, and more. Can cause discoloration of the skin and mucous membranes, kidney damage, and neurological problems.
  • Coltsfoot: Used for sore throat, cough, bronchitis, asthma. Has been linked to cancer and liver damage.
  • Comfrey: Used for chest pain, cancer, heavy menstrual periods, and cough. Has been linked to cancer and liver damage.
  • Country mallow: Used for allergies, asthma, bronchitis, weight loss. Has been linked to stroke, heart attack, and death.
  • Germanium: Used for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and more. Has been linked to kidney damage and death.
  • Greater celandine: Used for irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, liver disorders, and more. Has been linked to liver damage.
  • Kava: Used for anxiety. Has been linked to liver damage.
  • Lobelia: Used for asthma, bronchitis, coughs, and to stop smoking. Has been linked to toxicity.
  • Yohimbe: Used as an aphrodisiac, for chest pain, depression, and erectile dysfunction. Can cause blood pressure and heart problems and death

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How Consumers Can Protect Themselves
Consumers Reports also offers consumers a list of dietary supplements consider to be safe, yet that does not mean these or others not on the list cannot cause harm or side effects. Fish oil, for example, is on this safe list, yet in March 2010, there were reports that some fish oil supplements had been found to contain toxins called PCBs. Calcium supplements, also on the list, have been found to contain unsafe levels of lead in some cases.

Therefore, Metcalf warns that “You need to be extremely careful about buying nutritional supplements, because there are several different ways they can be harmful.”

Dietary supplements are not subject to the same strict controls as drugs are under the FDA, but they are regulated under the less stringent Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act of 1994. Consumers should assume a “buyer beware” attitude when buying and taking supplements. Keeping up with information such as that offered in the latest Consumer Reports evaluation is one way, as well as checking advisories regarding dietary supplements from the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements and the FDA. Independent evaluation and testing labs such as ConsumerLab.com and scientific studies published in journals, magazines, and online are other resources.

Consumers should also consult their healthcare providers before starting any dietary supplement, especially if they have an underlying medical condition and/or are already taking any type of medication or supplement.

Consumer Reports