Dietary Supplements Send Thousands To The ER Every Year

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
We already know that the actual benefits of dietary supplements are up for a hearty debate. And now, new research reveals that supplements could actually add some extra health problems to your life.

The study, published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at a decade of emergency department data from 63 hospitals across the country. The researchers analyzed the data to find how many visits to those emergency departments could be attributed to supplements.

They found 3,667 cases of people who went to the emergency department thanks to symptoms (such as heart palpitations, dizziness, nausea, or an allergic reaction) that were a result of taking supplements. The researchers found that more than half the cases were women. And most cases (28%) in the study involved people between the ages of 20 and 34. But children taking unsupervised supplements did account for 21% of visits.

Based on these cases, the researchers estimated that supplements are responsible for about 23,000 emergency room visits every year. And of those, about 2,000 people would have symptoms severe enough to keep them hospitalized.

Herbal supplements were the most commonly reported in the study (as opposed to micronutrients, like vitamins). And of this group, weight-loss supplements were the worst offenders — responsible for about 25% of all adult visits — followed by energy and "sexual enhancement" supplements.

However, it's important to remember that about half of all adults in the country take supplements, so the vast majority of people take these things without problems serious enough to bring them to the emergency department — only a teeny percentage of supplement-takers experience side effects.

But that doesn't mean they're totally worth it: The supplement world is plagued with very limited regulation, resulting in things like the recent GNC/Target/Walgreens mislabeling scandal. Oh, and vitamins? You should definitely check with a doctor before deciding you need to wolf those down every morning. (Spoiler alert: You probably don't).

More from Diet & Nutrition