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How Many Dietary Supplements Is Too Many?

March 08, 2010
by Liz Colville
Legal dietary supplements include products as varied as amino acids, enzymes, herbs, minerals and vitamins. The jury is out on long-term benefits and safety, yet many people continue to swear by them, and increasing numbers of people are taking them.

So Many Supplements, So Little Information

“No one knows how many such adverse effects befall supplement users, because there has been no reliable reporting system,” The New York Times reported in 2008. Though a federal law now calls on people to report adverse effects from dietary supplements, those who use supplements “are unlikely to relate health problems to a supplement they assume to be safe, and even if they do, they may be reluctant to report an adverse effect from a self-medicated substance.”
Although the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements, under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, companies are required to declare to the FDA if they are marketing a product with a “new” ingredient—one that was not approved before 1994.

The FDA does provide useful information for consumers, including “Tips for the Savvy Supplement User: Making Informed Decisions and Evaluating Information.” Even though the document was published in 2002, it has timeless advice on taking supplements and on using the Internet to search for information regarding dietary supplements.

Vitamins Are Ubiquitous

People who don’t actively take supplements beyond a daily vitamin may find that they are still getting plenty of vitamins—and maybe even too many—in foods and beverages. The beverage market is particularly rife with vitamin-laden products, as findingDulcinea’s article “What Are You Drinking?” points out. So-called energy drinks are packed with vitamins—particularly B and C—and also include supplements such as ginseng and taurine, whose holistic properties have not been fully established.

Michael Alexander, profiled in the Times article above, proves that there is a ceiling on vitamin intake: He was diagnosed with a condition called vitamin B6-induced neuropathy after suffering from leg cramps for many years. According to the article, “The supplement had 100 milligrams of B6, or 50 times the recommended daily amount.” Even though Alexander cut the tablets into four parts, he was still getting 25 milligrams a day.

Nutritionist and professor Chris Rosenbloom suggested to WebMD that the problem might simply be ignorance: “many people don't know what they're taking … They're picking up OJ at the store, and they don't know what's in it—is it calcium-fortified, they don't know. People are taking vitamin C supplements but don't know how much.” Rosenbloom recommends taking a multivitamin daily as you’re working on improving your diet and eating a balanced diet based on the food pyramid. The WebMD article also includes information on the upper limits for vitamins as dictated by the Institute of Medicine.

The USDA Web site on nutrition points out in an article titled “Questions To Ask Before Taking Vitamin and Mineral Supplements” that many foods are now fortified with nutrients, such as fiber, vitamin C and calcium, meaning these ingredients don’t occur naturally in the food. This could make taking supplements redundant and “may actually cause you to exceed safe levels of intake of nutrients.” The article includes more valuable tips and links to help you make an informed decision about supplements.

The Bottom Line: Swallow Wisely

According to the National Institutes of Health, dietary supplements should be taken under the supervision of a doctor. Though they are not all FDA-approved, if they are ingested into your body, your doctor should know about them.

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