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Vitamins and Herbal Supplements Are Sending 23,000 Americans to the Hospital a Year

Illustration for article titled Vitamins and Herbal Supplements Are Sending 23,000 Americans to the Hospital a Year

A new study in the New England Journal of Medicine took a look at a decade’s worth of U.S. hospital admission data and found that over 23,0000 visits a year are actually due to substances people are taking to, theoretically, improve their health: vitamins and herbal supplements.

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So why are people heading to the ER? Once the study had excluded accidental vitamin overdoses by kids (yes, a lot of vitamins do look—and taste!—very much like candy) the clear culprit were herbal supplements, especially those designed to bulk or slim your weight and those promising to give you the benefits of a good night’s rest, without actually having to rest. Curiously, this group, which made up about one-third of all the hospitalizations, was mostly made up of people in their 20s and early 30s—and their most common complaint was heart troubles.

The study is a good stand alone look at hospitalizations, but it also highlights a strange loophole in how we regulate supplements. Supplements fall into an odd grey area in the FDA where, while they technically can yank a product after the fact, they don’t actually “approve” products. In other words, no one is checking supplements to see that they actually do anything close to what they say they do, or even checking to see that they’re safe before they arrive in stores.

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Image: Africa Studio / shutterstock

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What many people do not realize is the potential interaction of some herbal supplements with the prescriptive medications they are taking. For example, my mother was a big proponent of natural remedies, and she took many herbal concoctions said to improve various conditions. She did not realize that the licorice root was elevating her blood pressure. She also suffered serious bleeding on the brain when the effect of her Coumadin (i.e. Warfarin) was amplified 4 times stronger than normal.