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The most recent news on dietary supplements suggests that supplements used in conjunction with prescription medications can, in some cases, be dangerous. In a recent study, based on data from a national health and nutrition survey, researchers found that 34 percent of the participants reported taking some kind of dietary supplement in addition to their prescription medication.

Dr. Harris Lieberman, the study’s senior author, is a researcher with the Military Nutrition Division of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Dr. Lieberman and his associates looked at results from 10,480 adults who were asked to identify conditions, which included heart disease, kidney disease, high cholesterol, arthritis and other medical issues. The researchers noted that 47% of the people surveyed who identified one of the medical illnesses, reported using supplements and prescription drugs at the same time.  (Reuters News, 4/29/14)

The study points out the challenges both of regulating dietary supplements and helping individuals understand the potential risks of taking them.  Dr. Lieberman notes that we tend to think of multivitamins as being safe; but many have added herbal or botanical ingredients that may interact with medications.  “The authors call the findings ‘concerning’ because some herbal supplements are known to alter the way the liver metabolizes drugs, and can increase or weaken the potency of a medication.” (Reuters News, 4/29/14)

Dr. Lieberman suggests that consumers do their own research on possible drug interactions and the safety of their supplements. It is a good piece of advice, but one that may prove unrealistic. The better option for people with medical conditions is to report all dietary supplement use to their physician. Take the actual bottles to the doctor on visits and talk about what you take on a daily basis. The doctor can then check for possible interactions and help patients adjust dosages or change medications if necessary. For example, if someone with a heart condition is taking a blood-thinner like Coumadin, there are some supplements, like Vitamin E, that also act to thin the blood. The combined effects of both medications could put patients at risk of internal bleeding.  (American Heart Association)

If you want to take supplements to help with a medical condition, you should always talk to your physician first. The FDA is not required to regulate the dietary supplement industry in the same way it regulates prescription medications, so you cannot assume that all supplements are safe.

These questions, offered by the American Heart Association, apply to a wide range of medical condition and any dietary supplement usage:

  • Can I take it with other drugs?
  • Should I avoid certain foods, beverages or other products?
  • What are possible drug interaction signs I should know about?
  • How will the drug work in my body?
  • Is there more information available about the drug or my condition?

When buying over-the-counter medications or using prescriptions, be sure to read the labels and learn about any possible warnings or side effects. Keep all pills in the original containers so you can look at dosage and side effects. And, try to use one pharmacy for all your medications; your pharmacist can assist you in looking at drug interactions. And, always talk to your doctor about any new medications.

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