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Using New Dietary Supplements Safely: What To Know

Posted on March 29, 2023

Dietary supplements are popular among people with multiple sclerosis (MS) and other medical conditions. Although supplements can seem like a great addition to your wellness routine, they do have health risks. Taking supplements that are not regulated and in combination with other drugs can lead to unpredictable outcomes.

Although some supplements can be helpful to correct nutrient deficiencies (such as low levels of vitamin D), it’s important to protect yourself against dangerous mistakes. Here are some ways to stay safe with vitamin and mineral supplements.

Be Aware of Common Side Effects

Each vitamin, mineral, botanical, and herbal supplement can have potential dangers. Make sure you’re aware of any possible side effects of a new supplement before you start taking it. For example, some supplements frequently associated with problems include:

  • Echinacea — Severe allergic reactions or digestive issues
  • Iron —Constipation or diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and organ damage
  • St. John’s wort — Interaction with several medications and can reduce effectiveness
  • Vitamin A — Liver damage, headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite
  • Vitamin K — Lower effectiveness of blood thinners

Start any new supplements on a low dose and see how your body responds. It’s best to introduce one change at a time so you can better pinpoint the cause of side effects. High-dose supplements can lead to toxicity, especially if you’re already getting the same ingredient in a multivitamin or the foods you eat.

Be on the lookout for signs of a potential allergy or intolerance (like gastrointestinal symptoms, heart rate and blood pressure changes, and skin rashes). You can keep track of any changes in a journal to discuss with your health care team at your next appointment.

Keep Them Away From Children

Supplements can be particularly dangerous to children or pets, so it’s important to keep your supplements out of reach and to dispose of them carefully if you don’t finish the bottle. Some supplements have inviting colors and flavorings that may attract children or pets.

Authorities have reported a growing problem with children accidentally eating cannabis products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Some of these products come packaged as gummies or treats that look tempting. Dangerous effects may include hallucinations, heart rate changes, and vomiting.

If someone — especially a child — has ingested a supplement unknowingly, contact the National Capital Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 before symptoms appear. For serious side effects, call 911 or go to the emergency room right away.

Dispose Of and Store Supplements Safely

To protect the environment, don’t flush supplements down the drain or toilet. When supplements get into the water supply, they can contaminate it and have harmful effects on marine life.

To dispose of supplements properly, it is best to check with the local authorities or pharmacies for any medication take-back programs that can provide safe and secure disposal options. If you need to get rid of supplements, put them in a sealed container or bag with coffee grounds or cat litter. Take them outside to the trash bin as soon as possible to keep them out of curious hands and paws.

Don’t Keep Supplements a Secret

Some people don’t want to talk to health care professionals about dietary supplements because they assume supplements aren’t a big deal or their provider won’t be supportive. However, it’s essential to discuss supplement use with your doctor to avoid dangerous interactions with your prescription drugs. Your provider can help you determine a safe dosage and let you know about possible side effects.

It’s especially important to mention that you’re using supplements when you’re having surgery, changing medication, or experiencing new symptoms. Most health care providers understand that people with chronic health conditions are interested in supplement use, so it probably won’t come as a surprise when you tell them what you’re taking. Your doctor may advise taking supplements with or without food and spacing them apart from your medications.

You can also mention to your pharmacist that you’re taking supplements when you pick up your MS prescriptions. They can give you advice about potential interactions.

Be Wary of Supplement Labels

The supplement industry is filled with promises, many of which are too good to be true. In particular, supplements that promote bodybuilding and weight loss tend to fall short of their health claims. It’s easy to get swept away by lofty guarantees, especially if you’re experiencing an MS flare-up. But you should always take a step back and seek the advice of a registered dietitian or another health care professional before turning to quick fixes that may do more harm than good. Lifestyle changes like adopting a healthy diet can give you many of the reported benefits with fewer potential health risks.

Sometimes, the marketing for supplements is so convincing that you might be tempted to skip disease-modifying therapies (DMTs) for a more “natural” alternative. There’s no scientific evidence that supplements can slow the progression of MS or reduce relapses, whereas DMTs undergo extensive safety and efficacy trials before coming on the market. Because MS is a progressive disease, it’s crucial to avoid missing treatments that help prevent lasting damage. It’s also important to remember that most supplements aren’t tested for purity and may contain contaminants (like heavy metals), making them anything but safe or natural.

Shop for Trusted Brands

Unfortunately, dietary supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so there’s no way to be sure you’re getting what’s listed on the label. Your best bet is to look for products that have some third-party testing. Examples of verified third-party testing are ConsumerLab.com, NSF International, and U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP). Supplement manufacturers often add health claims or say things like “proven in clinical trials” or “approved for quality,” but these labels are usually random and meaningless. Instead, ask your health care provider for a recommendation or check for these labels for the best chance of getting your money’s worth.

Report Problems

Even if you take all the recommended precautions, dietary supplements can still be risky. Not everyone responds to supplements the same way, and it’s always possible to receive a bad batch or contaminated product.

If you experience adverse effects from a supplement, you should call your health care provider — and also report them to the FDA and the manufacturer. Prompt reporting can help keep dangerous products off the market to protect other customers. Contact the FDA by calling 1-800-FDA-1088 or filling out an online form. The product label should include the company’s contact information to share your concerns.

The Bottom Line

Dietary supplements are one way to improve your health and well-being, but it’s important to use them safely. To stay safe, do your research, check labels, and talk with your health care provider. By following these tips, you can safely incorporate new dietary supplements into your health regimen.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, more than 197,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with MS.

Have you experienced adverse events from over-the-counter dietary supplement use? What supplement products would you advise others to avoid? Share your tips and experiences in a comment below or on MyMSTeam.

    Posted on March 29, 2023
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    Luc Jasmin, M.D., Ph.D., FRCS (C), FACS is a board-certified neurosurgery specialist. Learn more about him here.
    Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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