How the proliferation of dangerous supplements has created an epidemic of health problems

The opioid crisis is making big headlines these days, and the government’s “war on drugs” has named opioids as its number one target.  But there’s another dangerous type of drug harming Americans that no one is talking about: dangerous over-the-counter supplements.

Hundreds of Harmful Drugs are on the Market.

According to the author of a study in the scientific journal, Drug Testing and Analysis, there are at least a dozen over-the-counter supplements which contain a synthetic stimulant that’s harmful to human health.  Found in many supplements—for improved athletic performance, sexual enhancement, joint pain relief, brain function enhancement, weight loss—this hidden ingredient contains a stimulant compound that has never been tested on humans.

In fact, the hidden stimulant—called DMAA for short—has only been tested in two studies on animals over the last 70 years. According to Pieter Cohen, an internist physician at Cambridge Health Alliance and an author of the study, the safety and effectiveness of these hidden stimulants are “entirely unknown.”

And yet, dozens of supplements on the open market that claim to promote, support and enhance human health, contain this dangerous compound.  After Cohen’s study was published, the Federal Food and Drug Administration sent letters to 14 different supplement companies who sold products containing DMAA, warning that the FDA considered these dietary “supplements” to contain potentially harmful and adulterated ingredients.

But the number is significantly more than 14.  In reality, more than 300 different health “supplements” on the market today contain products that, according to the FDA, contain harmful substances or even illegal compounds and drugs that are untested and unapproved by the regulator.  Some of these supplements contain prescription-level drugs that are beyond the levels contained in approved drugs; others have hidden compounds, or ingredients deceptively labelled to confuse consumers.  The FDA has called all of these supplements—which include sexual enhancement supplements, joint pain supplements and weight loss supplements—as fraudulent and has issued warnings to consumers to avoid consuming them.  

The FDA is now warning consumers that although these supplements—which are typically found over-the-counter at drug stores, health food stores and convenience stores—are merely masquerading as beneficial supplements and are, in reality, potentially very harmful to your health.  Reported injuries from these drugs include liver damage, kidney failure, heart issues, stroke and death.  

Americans Are Falling Victim to Harmful Supplement Advertising.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the National Institutes of Health, more than half (53 percent) of Americans report that they take at least one dietary supplement as part of their health routine.  About a third (or 34 percent) of Americans report that they take both at least one dietary supplement and a prescription medication.

What Americans do not realize, however, is that these supplement drug manufacturers routinely—and legally—sell their supplements on the American market without having to first prove that they are safe for consumers.  Because of an industry-friendly regulation from 1994 called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (or “DSHEA”), makers of supplements are virtually free from federal oversight under the FDA and free to distribute their drugs with unchecked ingredients and false claims.

As a result, the consumer marketplace of health supplements and dietary supplements is not nearly as safe as it should be, and consumers are suffering the price.