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"Natural" Dietary Supplements

Can Dietary Supplements Harm My Health? continued...

Creatine. Many high school, college, and professional athletes take creatine. On the surface, creatine seems safe. After all, it occurs naturally in the organs, muscles, and bodily fluids. It has even shown some benefits, when appropriately used, in treating congestive heart failure (CHF) and in enhancing muscle mass and strength.  

Creatine sometimes causes side effects, like diarrhea, cramps, and loss of appetite. Weight gain, abnormal heart rhythm, and loss of kidney function are also associated with taking creatine.

Ephedra. Yet another "natural" dietary supplement, which was once used in many weight loss products available over-the-counter. While advertisers were quick to promote ephedra's connection with weight loss, that wasn't the whole story. Ephedra increased the risk of heart problems, stroke, and psychiatric and gastrointestinal symptoms. An extract from a different plant, bitter orange, contains synephrine, a compound with some of the same effects as ephedra, and possibly some of the same adverse effects.

When manufacturers mixed ephedra with caffeine in weight loss products, reports of heart problems and strokes surfaced. Finally, after enough people (even young adults) suffered strokes or died after using products containing ephedra, the FDA banned its usage in the United States.

The FDA has also warned consumers about other ingredients in natural dietary supplements like kava kava (Piper methysticum). Kava kava, an herb native to the South Pacific, gained popularity as a sleep aid and natural stress reducer. After reports of more than 20 cases of liver disease and liver failure after taking kava kava, the FDA issued a consumer advisory about supplements containing the herb.

Be Your Own Natural Dietary Supplement Detective

No matter what the advertising flyer at the natural-food store may imply, manufacturers are not required to test natural dietary supplements for safety or purity. Because the FDA does not scrutinize supplements before their release into the marketplace, their reliability is uncertain.

These supplements vary widely in the concentration of active ingredients they contain, as well as in growing conditions, processing, and storage. Thankfully, there are now groups beginning to certify and test supplements for safety and purity. Stay tuned.

Does My Doctor Approve of Natural Dietary Supplements?

Miraculous as these remedies may sound, always talk to a health care professional before taking any natural dietary supplement. Just because something is natural does not mean that it is always safe. After all, tobacco in cigarettes is very natural -- but it is also deadly!

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WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by David Kiefer, MD on July 05, 2012

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