Dietary supplements send thousands to the ER each year

Harmful outcomes for thousands after taking dietary supplements. Image Courtesy: WPEC

Bad reactions to dietary supplements are sending tens of thousands of Americans to the ER every year, a new study shows.

More than 23,000 visits to emergency rooms occur annually due to complications from taking dietary supplements such as herbal or complementary nutritional products, vitamins, and minerals, according to scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration who coauthored the study.

About 2,154 of the visits resulted in hospitalizations, the scientists reported.

Consumer Reports also studied the use of supplements. They found supplements can cause organ damage, cardiac arrest and cancer.

These latest results now have many doctors warning their patients about taking supplements.


Two years ago, when Chris Herrera was fifteen, he lost 56 pounds while taking a green tea extract billed as a fat burner.

According to his mom, Lourdes Gonzalez, his eyes turned yellow and medical tests showed his liver was failing.

"Having to hear the doctor tell me every day that Christopher had a 50% chance of dying and not making it, it was hurtful," said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said doctors blamed the green tea extract. Herrera eventually recovered.

That wasn't the case for Logan Stiner.

Logan’s mother, Katie Stiner, says her healthy 18-year-old son suddenly died while taking a powdered caffeine supplement.

"He had no idea what he was doing. None," said Stiner.


"One of my biggest concerns is that people think that a supplement is meant to replace food, and it is not," said Karen Hartung, Lead Clinical Dietitian at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center.

Hartung added some people misuse supplements, "People have shown they are dying from these supplements."

When people don't, Hartung says, they end up in the emergency room. "They may be overdosing or they are going into cardiac arrest because they took a pre-workout or they are taking a fat burner, and you just don't know the long term effects of that."

In fact, the recent study by the CDC found weight loss and energy products accounted for about 72 percent of visits for patients between ages 20 and 34.

The most typical patients were young adults or unsupervised children ingested the supplements.

The most common symptoms were chest pain, palpitations, and elevated heart rate.


Unlike prescription drugs, manufacturers don't need to prove safety and effectiveness for supplements.

In the United States, supplements can't be marketed for the treatment or prevention of diseases – they don't get scrutinized and approved by the FDA like prescription drugs – but, many people take them to address a range of symptoms or to boost general health.

About half of adults used at least one dietary supplement in the past month, and people spend billions on herbal or complementary nutritional products every year, according to the researchers.

The Council for Responsible Nutrition, which represents the supplement industry, maintains that "overwhelmingly dietary supplements are safe and play a valuable role in helping Americans live healthy lifestyles."


If you take supplements, Hartung recommends the following:

  • Young adults taking products to lose weight or increase energy should keep in mind that some of these products can have effects on their heart and shouldn't be taken in excess or without consulting with their doctors.
  • If you have a heart condition, talk to your doctor before you start taking a weight loss or energy supplement.
  • Older adults should be mindful of choking and swallowing problems when it comes to supplements.
  • Avoid taking more than one pill at a time, avoid extra-large capsules, and swallow products with plenty of fluids. Pills or pill fragments can get lodged in the windpipe or esophagus and can lead to complications.
  • If you're having pill-swallowing problems, talk with your pharmacist or doctor about other options including whether or not the supplements can be cut in half.
  • All medicines and dietary supplements should be stored up, away, and out of sight from young children.
  • Tell your doctor if you're taking any supplements and which ones.


With the help of an expert panel of independent doctors and dietary-supplement researchers, Consumer Reports identified 15 supplement ingredients that are potentially harmful.

The risks include organ damage, cancer, and cardiac arrest.

The severity of these threats often depends on such factors as pre-existing medical conditions, as well as, the quantity of the ingredient taken and the length of time a person has been exposed to the substance.

Many of the ingredients on this list also have the potential to interact with prescription and over-the-counter medications, such as cholesterol-lowering statins and blood-thinning drugs like aspirin and Warfarin (Coumadin and generic).

According to Consumer Reports, experts agree that none of these supplement ingredients provide sufficient health benefits to justify the risk. Even so, Consumer Reports found all 15 ingredients in products available online or in major stores such as GNC, Costco, CVS, Walmart, and Whole Foods.

The following are the 15 ingredients identified by Consumer Reports:


  • Also called: Aconiti tuber, aconitum, angustifolium, monkshood, radix aconti, wolfsbane
  • Claimed Benefits: Reduces inflammation, joint pain, gout
  • Risks: Nausea, vomiting, weakness, paralysis, breathing and heart problems, possibly death

Caffeine Powder

  • Also called: 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine
  • Claimed Benefits: Improves attention, enhances athletic performance, weight loss
  • Risks: Seizures, heart arrhythmia, cardiac arrest, possibly death; particularly dangerous when combined with other stimulants


  • Also called: Creosote bush, greasewood, larrea divaricata, larrea tridentata, larreastat
  • Claimed Benefits: Weight loss; improves inflammation; treats colds, infections, skin rashes, cancer
  • Risks: Kidney problems, liver damage, possibly death


  • Also called: Coughwort, farfarae folium leaf, foalswort, tussilago farfara
  • Claimed Benefits: Relieves cough, sore throat, laryngitis, bronchitis, asthma
  • Risks: Liver damage, possible carcinogen


  • Also called: Blackwort, bruisewort, slippery root, symphytum officinale
  • Claimed Benefits: Relieves cough, heavy menstrual periods, stomach problems, chest pain; treats cancer
  • Risks: Liver damage, cancer, possibly death


  • Also called: Teucrium chamaedrys, viscidum
  • Claimed Benefits: Weight loss; alleviates fever, arthritis, gout, stomach problems
  • Risks: Liver damage, hepatitis, possibly death

Greater Celandine

  • Also called: Celandine, chelidonium majus, chelidonii herba
  • Claimed Benefits: Alleviates stomachache
  • Risks: Liver damage

Green Tea Extract Powder

  • Also called: Camellia sinensis
  • Claimed Benefits: Weight loss
  • Risks: Dizziness, ringing in the ears, reduced absorption of iron; exacerbates anemia and glaucoma; elevates blood pressure and heart rate; liver damage; possibly death


  • Also called: Ava pepper, kava kava, piper methysticum
  • Claimed Benefits: Reduces anxiety, improves insomnia
  • Risks: Liver damage, exacerbates Parkinson's and depression, impairs driving, possibly death


  • Also called: Asthma weed, lobelia inflata, vomit wort, wild tobacco
  • Claimed Benefits: Improves respiratory problems, aids smoking cessation
  • Risks: Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, rapid heartbeat, confusion, seizures, hypothermia, coma, possibly death


  • Also called: Oxilofrine, p-hydroxyephedrine, oxyephedrine, 4-HMP
  • Claimed Benefits: Weight loss, increases energy, improves athletic performance
  • Risks: Causes heart rate and rhythm abnormalities, cardiac arrest; particularly risky when taken with other stimulants

Pennyroyal Oil

  • Also called: Hedeoma pulegioides, mentha pulegium
  • Claimed Benefits: Improves breathing problems, digestive disorders
  • Risks: Liver and kidney failure, nerve damage, convulsions, possibly death

Red Yeast Rice

  • Also called: Monascus purpureus
  • Claimed Benefits: Lowers LDL ("bad") cholesterol, prevents heart disease
  • Risks: Kidney and muscle problems, liver problems, hair loss; can magnify effect of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, increasing the risk of side effects

Usnic Acid

  • Also called: Beard moss, tree moss, usnea
  • Claimed Benefits: Weight loss, pain relief
  • Risks: Liver injury


  • Also called: Johimbi, pausinystalia yohimbe, yohimbine, corynanthe johimbi
  • Claimed Benefits: Treats low libido and erectile dysfunction, depression, obesity
  • Risks: Raises blood pressure; causes rapid heart rate, headaches, seizures, liver and kidney problems, heart problems, panic attacks, possibly death
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