More than half of the people in this country are taking nutritional supplements, and nutrition research is at an all-time high. But the information explosion associated with these trends comes with a downside, and that’s sensationalism and fear mongering where supplement safety is concerned.
Folks, don’t believe everything you hear. Taking supplements is safe, and here are some facts you won’t hear on CNN, FOX News or any other mainstream media outlet.
Safe Supplements Compared to Real Hazards
Let’s begin by comparing supplement risks to the perils of everyday life. Every year in the United States:
About 8,800 people are injured by fireworks.
About 2.4 million people sustain burns, most of them from kitchen accidents.
More than 580,000 people are seen in emergency rooms for injuries sustained while riding bicycles, and 900 cyclists are killed.
Around 3,600 people die from choking on their food, and believe it or not, approximately 100 choke to death on ballpoint pens.
Even food is risky—it causes 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths per year!
Your Nutritional Supplement Is Safe
According to the most recent report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers, not a single death was attributed to taking nutritional supplements. You’re more likely to die from lightning strikes, bee stings, dog bites or diesel exhaust than from nutritional supplements—and you’re far more likely to be harmed by eating food.
Drugs Kill More People Than Nutritional Supplements
The real danger is prescription drugs. They kill more people than handguns, automobiles, street drugs and every type of poison combined.
Each and every year, 106,000 patients die in our hospitals, while under medical supervision, from adverse reactions to prescription drugs. (This doesn’t count the untold numbers who die of medication side effects outside of hospitals.) Going with the conservative in-hospital figure, that’s 290 deaths per day—close to the equivalent of a 747 airliner going down every single day.
Damage is not limited to prescription drugs, either. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin kill 16,500 Americans every year and send 103,000 to the hospital with gastrointestinal bleeding.
Where is the hue and cry over this? We rarely see exposés on the dangers of pharmaceuticals—until one of them kills hundreds of people and is yanked off the market.
Take News Stories With a Grain of Salt
The media doesn’t get a free pass on this issue, either. Let’s look at why news stories about nutritional supplement safety get so dramatically blown out of proportion and why you should be skeptical of negative reports.
Bad news sells. When a policeman uses force, necessary or otherwise, it makes the 6 o’clock news. Nobody reports on our police forces’ uneventful encounters with the public. The same is true of reports on nutritional supplement safety. Virtually all physicians, alternative and conventional alike, agree that calcium and vitamin D supplements strengthen the bones and protect against fractures. But when a study challenges this—“Big study finds no clear benefits of calcium pills”—it’s news.
Reporters don’t always get it right. Interpreting medical studies is time-consuming work even for doctors. That’s why many reporters rely on press releases and others’ interpretation of the data, which aren’t always accurate. The vitamin D-calcium story is a case in point. If reporters had actually looked at this study, they’d have found that it didn’t reach a “no benefits” conclusion at all. The first page states, “Among healthy postmenopausal women, calcium with vitamin D supplement resulted in a small but significant improvement in hip bone density...”
New information is rarely reported in context. Negative studies are usually reported as singular events, without any mention of the larger body of positive research. It’s as if that one study about nutritional supplement risks negates hundreds of positive ones. “Evidence for omega-3 fats less conclusive than we thought,” opened an article reviewing a British Medical Journal study which concluded that omega-3s had no clear effect on total mortality, cardiovascular events or cancer. This is pure nonsense. Had reporters looked at the hundreds of other studies on fish oil, they just might have put this one in perspective.
The Bottom Line: Nutritional Supplements are Safe
Yes, there are nutritional supplements that may interact with drugs that may pose a danger. But when used properly, nutritional supplements are extremely safe. I’ve been prescribing them to my patients for over 30 years, and they’ve proven themselves time after time to be the best medicine.
More Dr. Whitaker Advice on Nutritional Supplements