As the physical fitness and health craze hits the nation, more and more consumers are looking towards dietary supplements to help shed the extra pounds, get the extra energy, and try the new hottest supplement.  Young athletes are looking for supplements to give them an edge over the competition.  However, many consumers know very little about what they are taking and the side effects.  As a long time user of dietary supplements, I have often felt the dizziness and sometimes attributed jitters of taking supplements first hand.

What most consumers do not know is that dietary supplements can lead to mild side effects or even life threatening problems and sometimes death. For example, some supplements that contain ingredients such as caffeine, ephedrine, or GHB (gamma hydroxybutyrate) can lead to increased heart rate, splitting headaches, and increased chances of a heat stroke. Ephedrine is often sold as “herbal energy” products and promoted for weight loss and energy boosts. The downside is that ephedrine can have “serious side effects on the heart and central nervous system, as well as raising core body temperature and decreasing the body’s ability to cool.”

A dietary supplement is any product in “pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid form containing vitamins, minerals, herbs, or other botanicals, amino acids, or other known dietary substance that is intended as a supplement to the normal diet.”

So what does all that mean?

In layman’s terms, a dietary supplement is basically anything taken “intended to supplement the diet.” (This includes a vast array of products.)  The problem is that dietary supplements are not regulated under the same regulations as ordinary food and drug products.  The FDA regulates only “quality control and good manufacturing processes, but does not ensure standardization of the active ingredients or efficacy.”

Many people assume that these supplements are safe and effective for treating specific situations because they are natural and have been used as traditional medicinal purposes. However, the FDA does not require manufacturers of dietary supplements to prove safety or efficacy and most supplements have not been carefully studied. Further, lack of regulation and government monitoring also means that supplements are not monitored to ensure that they contain the ingredients or amount of active ingredient the manufacturer claims they contain.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed.” The DSHEA places dietary supplements in a special category under the general umbrella of “foods,” not drugs, and requires that every supplement be labeled a “dietary supplement.”

In some instances, dietary supplements may be linked to death. For example, in 2002, Douglas Page wrote on an article outlining the surge of the increasing heat stroke deaths among football players. Although supplements may not be the direct cause of death, Julian Bailes, M.D. and chair of neurosurgery at West Virginia University, states that heatstroke fatalities may, in part, be attributable or aggravated by the use of dietary supplements.

This post is not meant to bash supplements. In fact, I am a big fan of taking supplements because they can be used effectively to lose weight, gain energy, or improve health. However, like anything, is it crucial to understand the power of these supplements and to use them in moderation.  Education in the dangers of “over the counter” supplements and their misuse and potential side effects will curb certain individuals from unwanted effects, life threatening dehydration, and heatstroke.

As a consumer, especially of new products, it is crucial that you read the label and start with a small dose, especially if you are not used to taking similar products or have prior health problems. Dietary supplements can be great tools for improving one’s health and appearance as long as they are taken with care and caution.