Mixing supplements and your prescribed pharmaceuticals is a recipe for disaster without consulting your primary care doctor first.

Grocery stores, health food stores, pharmacies, and many online retailers sell nutritional supplements. We can get them anywhere and everywhere these days, but how safe is it to be taking nutritional supplements without the guidance of a doctor? A recent study posted in the New England Journal of Medicine “estimated that 23,000 people end up in the emergency room each year suffering from heart palpitations, chest pain, choking or other problems after ingesting dietary supplements.” This seems like a large number of people, and it is certainly nothing to ignore or take lightly, however it only accounts for about 5% of the number of ER visits involving pharmaceuticals by comparison. 

As a Naturopathic Doctor, I use nutritional supplements with my patients to help support their health. However, when I am choosing which supplements to use with a patient I have many standards that I go by, and just as many questions for the supplement companies that I use. I want to know about the purity of the product, testing done on the product, the research of effectiveness as well as knowing and understanding where the product has been produced, stored, and, finally, knowing the other ingredients used in making the capsule or tablet. Not all supplements are created equal, and a lot of the over-the-counter supplements are not regulated. The companies that I often use with patients are looking towards the future, and are holding themselves to higher standards while several even hold themselves to European standards for supplements.

The study was done by looking at 64 hospitals throughout the USA between 2004 and 2013, and it was hard to always determine what supplement the patient was taking, or even who the producing company was for that matter, as the doctors did not often write down the information, or the company. We, as the patients, think that supplements are not going to interfere with the medications that we are taking, however there are a lot of supplement/herb and drug interactions that need to be looked at, and considered, before supplements/herbs are added into a patient's treatment plan. I often ask my patients if they have told their primary care doctor what supplements they are on. I also ask them if there have been any changes to their medications so that I can make sure that their are no potential risks from combining a the supplement with a pharmaceutical. 

So it does not, unfortunately, surprise or frustrate me to hear about negative interactions between supplements and medications. What does frustrate me is lack of communication between providers and their patients. Please, always tell your doctor what supplements you are taking, even if they gloss over them, as they need to be aware of all that you are taking. Some drug/herb/supplement interactions just lessen the effect of the medication, or other supplement, while others can lead to serious complications. Just because your friend took a supplement, and had great results (increased energy, weight loss, etc), does not mean that the same supplement is going to be safe, or even effective, for you.
So as you consider your health in 2016, please consult with a medical professional about what supplements you should be on, and find out if there are any interactions that need to be looked out for.

Source: Washington Post (Ariana Eunjung Cha)

Image: Kham Tran (Wikipedia) (CC 3.0 Unported)