Same story, new data, and a message that needs repeating: Over-the-counter supplements — sold as safe alternatives to prescription drugs for weight loss, muscle building, and sexual enhancement — may be risky and not beneficial to your health. Indeed, many of them are adulterated with strong prescription drugs.
As the Washington Post reported of a newly published study:
Researchers found unapproved and sometimes dangerous drugs in 746 dietary supplements, almost all of them marketed for sexual enhancement, weight loss or muscle growth … [A scientific] review of a Food and Drug Administration database of contaminated supplements for the years 2007 to 2016 most commonly turned up sildenafil — the drug sold as Viagra — and other erectile dysfunction drugs in sex enhancement products; sibutramine and the laxative phenolphthalein, both banned by the FDA, in weight-loss supplements; and steroids or their analogues in muscle-building products. About 80 percent of the supplements were contaminated by one pharmaceutical that should not have been in the product. Twenty percent contained at least two such drugs, and two of the supplements contained six unapproved drugs. One product contained a drug that raises blood pressure and another drug that lowers it. Despite these contaminants, fewer than half the products were recalled.
Dr. Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at the Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, told the Kaiser Health News Service that the results of the study, in which he was not involved, were “mind-boggling.” That’s because, despite health risks that supplements may pose, half of Americans may be taking one kind or another, and the pills have become a $35 billion a year business with little or no evidence of benefit.
The JAMA publication occurred even as the New York Times put up a skeptical question-and-answer item by a doctor about calcium supplements and the “newspaper of record” has put out an extensive take-down of Michael Holick, a Boston University endocrinologist and a major researcher-promoter of Vitamin D supplementation.
The New Yorker since has published its own scathing investigation of Holick and his frequent appearance as an expert witness for defendants in child abuse cases. He provides questionable but expert-sounding testimony casting doubt on episodes of abuse. He argues instead for the possibility of harmed youngsters suffering the rare illness of hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or bone fragility due to Vitamin D deficiency.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs and defective and dangerous products, including and especially adulterated supplements and over-the-counter products purporting to benefit their health. Be wary of nutritional hype, including with expert endorsement. My colleagues at the firm and I also are all too familiar with some so-called “expert witnesses” and their willingness to endorse positions that are nothing less than puzzling. (To see how they testify and examples of how their “expertise” can dissolve under questioning, just use the search function on the firm’s site, typing in “expert witness.”)
If you’re uncertain about supplements, ask your pharmacist — you can more readily now that Congress and the President have decided pharmacists no longer can be under Big Pharma gag orders, especially about pricing. Talk to your doctor, unless you’ve already found she’s under the Vitamin D thrall or too readily prescribes medications to start.
But know this: It’s a simple message that experts have offered the consuming public for some time now that dietary supplements and OTC “magic” pills for weight loss, muscle gain, and libidinous who-knows-what are ineffective, risky, and a waste of money. Save $100 – or more! – a year for yourself and everyone in your household by clearing the kitchen counter of all those useless pills and nostrums and not spending a nickel or dime more on them again. Or at least until there’s solid, rigorous, scientific evidence of their benefit.