Just because vitamins and supplements are available over the counter, it doesn’t mean they’re risk-free: From 2005 to 2012, the rate of supplement-related calls to poison control centers increased by 49 percent, a study in the Journal of Medical Toxicology found.
The spike followed a nearly 9 percent drop from 2002 to 2005, driven mainly by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on the botanical ma juang (known as ephedra), which was linked to heart attack and stroke.
Homepathic agents contributed to the most number of calls, at 36 percent of the total, followed by botanicals at 32 percent, and hormonal supplements—including sleep aid melatonin and male-hormone boosters—at 15 percent.
Only about 5 percent of the calls resulted in serious medical outcomes, and the majority of them were in small children. Energy products and botanicals had the highest proportion of any category for leading to severe outcomes.
When looking at energy products specifically, the majority of cases affected men, and those older than six years old. And nearly 1 in 4 cases for exposure were intentional.
Energy products often contain a mix of caffeine with other ingredients like taurine, guarana, ginseng, Ginkgo biloba, L-carnitine, milk thistle, and B vitamins, the researchers say. They’ve been linked abnormal heart rhythms, seizure, and rapid breathing.
As for botanicals, a compound called yohimbe—often used for male sexual enhancement—was most risky. Nearly 30 percent of all exposures resulted in moderate or major issues, the study found. The botanical can cause problems like rapid heart beat, kidney failure, or heart attack.
The results demonstrate the need for FDA regulation for energy products and yohimbe, the researchers write—as was successfully accomplished with ma huang more than 10 years ago. So if you’re considering popping supplements, make sure you loop in your doctor first. Certain supplements can be even more risky if you’re taking other meds, too.