A hard pill to swallow: The deleterious side effects of dietary supplements

Photo courtesy of Erich Ferdinand, Flickr

Photo courtesy of Erich Ferdinand, Flickr

Packaged in colorful little bottles plastered with claims of “scientifically proven” benefits, dietary supplements are flying off the shelves and into the stomachs of health-conscious Americans. Replacing their dubious predecessors of magic weight loss pills and miraculous appetite suppressants, dietary supplements like vitamins and mineral pills have been welcomed as a more scientific and trustworthy “fast food” approach to health.

A stop at the local Vitamin Shoppe in my hometown revealed that now, there truly is a pill for everything from muscle building to memory improvement. For college students, the idea of taking a pill to achieve a healthier lifestyle seems appealing, especially when our schedule gets chaotic and eating right is not a priority. A study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, however, uncovers how millennials’ supplement obsession is impacting health.

Citing data from 63 emergency departments in the US, the probe revealed that more than 23,000 ER visits were due to dietary supplement usage — 28 percent of which involved adults 20 to 34 years old. Most of the visits were more specifically attributed to “herbal or complementary nutritional products” for dieting and energy. Of the many severe side effects reported, chest pain, high heart rate and irregular heartbeat were the most common for college-aged patients.

Yet, once you look at the Food and Drug Administration’s supplement approval processes, these findings are hardly surprising. Supplement companies do not have to ensure that their products are effective or even safe. The FDA monitors the dietary supplement market by the sole means of recall — only if the supplements are proven to be unsafe, after they are already on the shelves, can they be regulated and removed.

Though there might be a small minority of college students that use vitamins and mineral supplements, energy-boosting pills are definitely popular on campus. The long list of energy supplements, caffeine pills, guarana, ginseng, Vitamin B12 and Coenzyme Q10 parallels their popularity. A study from Northwestern University found that of caffeine supplement abuse cases, the average age of patients was 21. Dietary supplements are increasingly becoming an issue on college campuses –– students turn to them in desperate times as “study aids,” but there are a few natural and much safer alternatives for students finding themselves in a bind:

  1. Think Coffee Over Caffeine

Now this might seem obvious, but it is far easier to abuse caffeine, which is technically a drug, if you take a pill versus waiting in line at TroGro. Also, caffeine pills are highly concentrated. Magnum 357 Caffeine tablets have 200 milligrams of caffeine in each pill, which is at the tail end of the safe range of caffeine consumption per day. Take two or three, and depending on your body weight, you could overdose on caffeine.

  1. Eat Your Vitamins, Don’t Take Them

Your body is built to absorb vitamins and minerals from food, not chemically synthesized pills. Though not all the evidence is in yet on the effectiveness of dietary supplements, marginally overdosing on Vitamin A and Retinol has been proven to cause a multitude of negative side effects. 

  1.  Ask A Doctor

If you feel the need to take a vitamin or mineral supplement to make up for deficiencies in your diet for example, talk to a doctor first. Make use of your student health fees and stop by Engemann to get a second opinion and ensure that the brand of supplements you want to take is effective and safe.

Dietary supplements can complement a balanced diet, but till the effects of nutrition pills are truly understood, it might be best to err on the side of caution, and stick to safer alternatives.