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Should you be afraid of dietary supplements? A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine is being touted as a “yes.” As NPR reported last week,

Tens of thousands of Americans are treated in hospital emergency rooms each year for problems caused by dietary supplements, federal health officials are reporting.

According to Dr. Pieter Cohen of Harvard Medical School, “This is the most important study that been published on supplements in the last 20 years.”

“What this study does is find entirely flawed the underlying premise that supplements are safe,” Cohen says. “In fact, supplements are now shown by this elegant CDC study to send tens of thousands of people to emergency rooms every year.”

That certainly sounds scary.

dietary supplementsYet consider that two of the three major causes the study authors identified are in fact not specific to supplements: 1) Children ingesting supplements bought by and intended for adult use; and 2) Older adults choking on the pills. Such events can – and do – happen with any medication, not just supplements.

In other cases, supplements were said to contribute to things like chest pain and heart palpitations. Considering that many of the most troublesome types of supplements are those with a cardiovascular effect, this isn’t wholly surprising. There sometimes also can be dangerous interactions between pharmaceutical drugs and supplements. (This is why it’s so critical to talk with your physician before starting any supplement use.) In a country where more than half of us take at least one drug daily – and many of us, more than one – the real surprise would be if there were zero “adverse effects” involving supplementation.

Consider, too: More than 1 million people wind up in the ER for drug overdose alone.

Yet another problem with studies such as this one is that they tend to lump all types of supplements together – from sketchy weight loss products sold on late night TV to over-the-counter products from your local Wal Mart to physician ordered compounds as part of an overall therapeutic plan. The former types of products are more apt to be compromised than the latter – as seen earlier this year in a report questioning the integrity of herbal supplements bought at a number of high volume retailers.

Certainly, quality control is an issue that needs to be addressed. But to paint all supplements with the same broad brush and insist on their inherent riskiness is no different than saying that all pharmaceutical drugs are bad because tens of thousands die by some kinds of them every year. (The death rate for supplements? One for 10 million people who take them.)

That said, smart supplementation is done in consult with your health care providers. They can direct you to the right amounts of the right compounds, recommend high quality products, and help you avoid negative interactions. Not only does this support your safety but also the efficacy of the supplements you do take. There’s no guessing which supplements may be helpful and which aren’t really necessary, which are less apt to help.

Supplementation can be a useful tool in your path toward your optimal health and well-being. Which and how you use them makes all the difference.

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