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Are Supplements Safe? A Scientific Review

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With lack of FDA control, it can often be confusing and a little scary to purchase a supplement without knowing if it’s actually safe to consume.

As with all things, there’s good and there’s bad. While the good supplements can excel your results and health status, the bad could actually damage your organs, leading to sickness and also, of course, be a waste of your time and money.

In this article, we will take an in-depth review of dietary supplements, whether they are safe or not and how to pick the very best and safest products.

How To Determine If Dietary Supplements are Safe or Not

 There is no denying there are some companies out there promoting unsafe and ineffective supplements.

While some name-brand supplements that contain many different ingredients are not tested for safety and effectiveness, many of their individual ingredients are.

By searching in scholarly journals for specific ingredients, you can view many different journal articles that provide information regarding safety, proper dosages and if the supplement actually works or not.

Creatine, for instance, is one of the most popular supplements on the market, but is still often confused with steroids by the mainstream population.

Fortunately, hundreds of studies have been carried out, testing the safety and efficacy of creatine (1).  As a result, creatine is now one of the most consumed supplements on the planet and is considered to be one of the safest and most effective. It also provides other health benefits and is currently used to treat brain damage.

While many different supplements to do not have information regarding safety of their product, they are required by law to display the ingredients and the dosages of those ingredients.

With this information, you can research individual ingredients to determine if the ingredient itself and its dosage are safe for consumption. If you do not have the expertise or time to do this research, you can follow recommendations from knowledgeable and unbiased scientists or experts.

Pharmaceuticals Drugs vs Dietary Supplements

The primary argument regarding the safety of supplements is that the FDA does not regulate the industry.

This is the case for the production and sale of supplements, but the FDA does, however, have the power to remove supplements and ingredients from the market if they begin to pose risk.

For industries such as pharmaceuticals, tight regulations by the FDA are in place for powerful drugs, which may take upwards of years to become approved.

The difference between pharmaceuticals and health supplements is that most pharmaceuticals are very powerful and can easily result in overdose or serious issues.

In contrast, most supplements are less powerful and meant to simply be taken in addition to a sound exercise and diet regime. Although they may cause illness, it’s very rare that a dietary supplement will cause a serious issue if the instructions are followed.

For example, a recent meta-analysis indicated that misuse of health supplements resulted in 23,000 visits to the emergency room compared to over 350,000 pharmaceutical related visits. These visits were largely due to simply over-consumption rather than the ingredient itself being unsafe (2).

This is a prime example of how FDA regulation doesn’t necessarily mean that a drug or supplement is safe to consume.

While health supplements specifically are not tested prior to release on the market, bodily injury rates as a result of supplements are still significantly lower than those resulting from the use of pharmaceuticals, which are FDA regulated. Importantly, the majority of those illnesses are caused by the individuals not following the guidelines and dosing.

If you are healthy, disease free and follow the recommended dose on the label then you will likely have no issue with dietary supplements. If you are unsure, it’s always best to do your research, check the label, check with your doctor and stick with ingredients that have been studied for years, rather than new ingredients no one has ever heard of.

Dosages Makes The Difference

The main difference between FDA regulated pharmaceuticals and supplements is the dosage.

Pharmaceuticals have a very low required dose to be effective. Because the dose is so small, this means that it is easy to take too many which results in some serious side effects.

On the other hand, dietary supplements have a larger safety margin, with little negative effect if a dosage above this range is consumed.

For example, glucosamine is a dietary supplement that is often used by older individuals to help with pain (3).

An effective and safe dosage of glucosamine can range from 300 milligrams to even upwards of 3,000 milligrams per day with minimal side effects in high dosages, other than issues with gastric discomfort.

Fentanyl, on the other hand is a popular pharmaceutical used to combat pain.

Effective, safe doses of fentanyl range from 50-100 micrograms, which is a very small amount and is quite easy to accidentally overdose. Even slight overdosing of such a drug can cause severe side effects and even death (4).

In short, if you took 3-4 extra capsules of a dietary supplement (which I certainly don’t recommend) you would likely not notice any side effects, or possibly just something mild such as nausea or stomach discomfort. In contrast, if you took 3-4 extra capsules/pills of a pharmaceutical drug you may face severe illness or, in extreme cases, even death.

Choosing Safe and Effective Supplements

While the FDA does not regulate health supplements prior to release, the majority of them are safe to consume, otherwise they are removed from the market and the manufacturer or owner would face large financial and legal implications.

I suggest always reading the label on supplements to check on the ingredients then doing your research to ensure they have been studied for safety and effectiveness.

By avoiding new supplements and only choosing ingredients with evidence from a trusted company, you can ensure that you are spending your money on safe and effective ingredients or products.

Are Dietary Supplements Safe?

Despite the fact that supplements do not need FDA approval, most supplements on the market for improving health are in fact safe to consume when dosed and used correctly.

Thankfully, supplement companies are required by law to include ingredients and dosages, allowing you, the consumer, to do research on specific ingredients ensuring both safety and effectiveness.

As for medical/pharmaceutical drugs, the dosage plays a large role in their potential dangers. While most supplements could potentially be dangerous when over dosed, it would take a much larger amount to have negative health issues compared to pharmaceutical drugs.

Based on my research and experience, 99% of the time a dietary supplement won’t cause major health issues; however, it can be commonly under dosed or in the majority of cases won’t have supportive research. For most people, the biggest negative of dietary supplements is just the waste of their money and time.

Always check the label, buy from a trusted site/company, do your research and follow the doses listed on the supplement. If you have any current illness or health issue, are on medication or pregnant, we always advise you to avoid dietary supplements and check with a medical doctor before starting a supplement regime.

If you want to stay with trusted, safe and efficaciously dosed supplements you can visit my supplement line, www.caplabs.com which was specifically designed to give customers a trusted, safe, effective and low-cost resource for all their supplement needs.

References

  1. Branch, J. D. (2003). Effect of creatine supplementation on body composition and performance: a meta-analysis. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 13(2), 198-226.
  2. Geller, A. I., Shehab, N., Weidle, N. J., Lovegrove, M. C., Wolpert, B. J., Timbo, B. B., … & Budnitz, D. S. (2015). Emergency department visits for adverse events related to dietary supplements. N Engl J Med, 2015(373), 1531-1540.
  3. Herrero‐Beaumont, G., Ivorra, J. A. R., del Carmen Trabado, M., Blanco, F. J., Benito, P., Martín‐Mola, E., … & Araújo, D. (2007). Glucosamine sulfate in the treatment of knee osteoarthritis symptoms: A randomized, double‐blind, placebo‐controlled study using acetaminophen as a side comparator. Arthritis & Rheumatology, 56(2), 555-567.
  4. Abuse, N. I. (2016, June 06). Fentanyl. Retrieved May 22, 2017, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/fentanyl
  5. Torti, S. V., & Torti, F. M. (2013). Iron and cancer: more ore to be mined. Nature Reviews Cancer, 13(5), 342-355.
  6. Fonseca-Nunes, A., Jakszyn, P., & Agudo, A. (2013). Iron and cancer risk—a systematic review and meta-analysis of the epidemiological evidence. Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention Biomarkers.

About the author

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Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Rudy has a 1st class BSc in Exercise, Nutrition & Health and a Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. Rudy currently works as a Human Performance Researcher, Sports Nutritionist and Physique Coach. Over 7 years he has helped over 500 people around the world achieve long last physique transformations.

He now works closely with a variety of professional athletes and teams, including the NBA, USA Athletics, World Triathlon Gold Medalists, Hollywood Celebrities and IFBB Pro Bodybuilders. If you would like to get in contact or work with Rudy please contact him on social media.

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