In my previous article, I covered five foundational things to know about supplements. In my final point, I touched on the idea that supplements aren’t always safe.
In this article I need to alert you to two troubling problems with sourcing supplements:
- Some supplement actually contain hidden pharmaceuticals
- Some supplements lie to you about their contents
Let’s tackle these in turn.
Some supplements actually contain hidden pharmaceuticals
Did you know that there are sometimes pharmaceutical drugs hidden in supplements sold by retailers like Amazon and eBay?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) typically doesn’t monitor supplements (we’ll keep coming back to this). But this fraudulent pattern is such a serious concern that the FDA has gotten involved. They created a database of over a thousand products that have been tainted with pharmaceuticals.
What kinds of substances did they find?
Many of the tainted products included those marketed to enhance energy, weight loss, sexual function, and cognitive function. The hidden, unlabeled pharmaceuticals they found might shock you:
- Sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, marketed for erectile dysfunction
- Tadalafil, branded as Cialis, another male enhancement drug
- Vardenafil, branded as Levitra, yet another erectile dysfunction prescription drug
- Sibutramine, an appetite suppressant
- Fluoxetine, the ingredient in Prozac, an antidepressant
Other weight loss supplements have been found to have stimulants like phentermine, a controlled substance used for weight loss. In one round of testing, the FDA tested 26 products from Amazon and 20 from eBay. Every single one contained undisclosed pharmaceutical ingredients.
It’s scary to think that these prescription drugs are showing up in supplements sold online. These substances can cause serious side effects and complications, and even interact with other drugs that you might be taking.
As a functional medicine physician, I am particularly concerned. People who are interested in finding the root cause of an issue often try supplements first to avoid prescription medications and their associated side effects. When buying a supplement from an unknown source, there is a real possibility it has a pharmaceutical drug in it. This is important because if you’re taking any other medications, you won’t know how the drugs will interact.
Are You Blood Doping?
If you’re an athlete, and your supplements may contain hidden pharmaceuticals, that also means you could be unintentionally blood doping.
What is blood doping? You may have heard about this in news stories of high-performance athletes taking substances to improve their performance. These are usually drugs like anabolic steroids or other medications which give the athlete an unfair advantage.
One study, published in PubMed, showed that more than 28% of the dietary supplements they tested had substances that could cause unintentional doping.
I’ve been seeing some high-performing athletes in my practice lately: bikers, marathoners, triathletes, and tennis players who take supplements to help them recover more quickly. For athletes who are tested for competition, it’s even more important to ensure you’re sourcing your supplements well.
For the rest of us, we don’t want to blood dope either. We want to make sure our dietary supplement doesn’t include Viagra or have a stimulant like ephedrine or a hormone like testosterone in it.
Even if the supplement you purchase doesn’t contain pharmaceuticals, it could contain other potent substances like herbs, which can have drug-like effects. When combining pharmaceuticals with herbs and other substances, serious side effects can result. That’s why it is so important that your provider refers to a database to prevent these interactions from occurring.
The bottom line is that, if you’re getting supplements from Amazon or eBay, it’s risky. You might be getting way more than you bargained for.
Some supplements flat out lie about their contents.
You may be thinking that other consumers have been duped because they were careless, but you will read the labels carefully. As a savvy consumer, you read the labels of supplements before you buy them. You know how important it is to see what’s in a supplement to make sure it’s what you expect and nothing you don’t.
But what if your label is incorrect? What if the label you’re looking at doesn’t accurately list the ingredients in the bottle?
If that concerns you, you might be interested in this article from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), a highly respected U.S. medical journal. The article discusses a study that JAMA conducted to evaluate 30 products marketed and sold on Amazon. These particular products were all sold to support the immune system. The results of the study are surprising.
Over half of the tested products had inaccurate labels.
In the 30 products they tested, 13 of them had extra substances in them that weren’t on the label and 17 of the products were mislabeled.
How can this happen?
The FDA does not regulate ingredient accuracy.
The only requirement of the FDA for supplement labels is that labels can’t include medical claims. A label cannot state, for example, that a supplement cures heart disease, treats diabetes, helps raise your testosterone, etc. However, there is little oversight ensuring that the ingredients listed on the label accurately reflect what is in the bottle.
Take, for example, melatonin.
Melatonin Labeling Inaccuracy Causes Toxicity Concerns
This article from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) discusses a concerning trend of children ingesting toxic levels of melatonin. While melatonin is generally a safe supplement, getting 10 or even 20 times what’s actually on the label can be very problematic, particularly with kids. It can cause agitation, sleep disruption, and even abnormally low cortisol. Too much melatonin can suppress cortisol and cause people to feel groggy and sleepy in the morning. Some people can also feel anxious or jittery from too much melatonin.
You want to trust that the supplement you buy has the labeled amount of ingredient in the product. For the sake of your health and safety, this is a particularly important topic.
How Can You Safely Source Quality Supplements?
We want to help you find quality supplements that support your health and vitality, not jeopardize it. At RIFM, we go to great lengths to ensure the products we recommend are clean and trustworthy.
In my next article, I will delve into the practical steps you can take to personally vet the products you’re considering.
New to Supplements?
Get Started With Our Wellness Essentials Bundle
I’m often asked, “If you had to pick only 3 supplements to recommend to me, what would they be?” Here is my answer. You need a quality multi-vitamin, a good source of Vitamin D, and you need to boost your Omega 3 fatty acids. If you can invest further in your health, I also recommend a strong source of probiotics and a detox formula. If you are new to supplements and looking for a safe, reliable way to boost your overall health, here are the must-haves to get started:
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