On So-Called Health Supplements

by F.

It’s easy to get worried about what, say, pseudoephedrine is doing to your body when you take it for allergies. After all, it’s not exactly “natural.” But what is the alternative? Well, there are a whole bunch of “healthy” supplements out there—from St. John’s Wort to zinc lozenges to echinacea capsules. Just wander down the aisles of Whole Foods. You’ll see “treatments” you never knew existed—and never knew could be so expennsive.

Putting aside whether any of these nostrums actually works (many don’t do anything, unless you are the lucky beneficiary of the placebo effect, which is quite real), are they better than the alternative? Not necessarily. According to a recent piece in the New York Times,

Since 1983, the American Association of Poison Control Centers has kept statistics on reports of poisonings for every type of substance, including dietary supplements. That first year, there were 14,006 reports related to the use of vitamins, minerals, essential oils — which are not classified as a dietary supplement but are widely sold in supplement stores for a variety of uses — and homeopathic remedies. Herbs were not categorized that year, because they were rarely used then.

By 2005, the number had grown ninefold: 125,595 incidents were reported related to vitamins, minerals, essential oils, herbs and other supplements. In all, over the 23-year span, the association — a national organization of state and local poison centers — has received more than 1.6 million reports of adverse reactions to such products, including 251,799 that were serious enough to require hospitalization. From 1983 to 2004 there were 230 reported deaths from supplements, with the yearly numbers rising from 4 in 1994, the year the supplement bill passed, to a record 27 in 2005.

Which supplements caused the biggest problem? Vitamins:

The supplements linked to the most reactions in 2005, according to the poison control centers, were ordinary vitamins, accounting for nearly half of all the reports received that year, 62,446, including 1 death. Minerals were linked to about half as many total reports, 32,098, but that number included 13 deaths. Herbs and other specialty products accounted for still fewer total reports, 23,769, but 13 deaths. Essential oils were linked to 7,282 reports and no deaths.

Among herbs and other specialty products, melatonin and homeopathic products — prepared from minuscule amounts of substances as diverse as salt and snake venom — had the most reports of reactions in 2005. The poison centers received 2,001 reports of reactions to melatonin, marketed as a sleep aid, including 535 hospitalizations and 4 deaths. Homeopathic products, often marketed as being safe because the doses are very low, were linked to 7,049 reactions, including 564 hospitalizations and 2 deaths.

More here. The essay in the Times is an excerpt from a forthcoming book on the subject. As in all things, caveat emptor, especially with pseudoscience.