These negative consequences linked to supplements were “very concerning,” said Flora Or, ScD, a researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts and the study’s lead author.
“Our results indicate that dietary supplements sold for weight loss, muscle building, and energy can be extremely dangerous and are linked with severe medical injury and, in some cases, death in young people who use these products,” Or told Healthline.
The study didn’t break out types of vitamins into particular categories. It’s possible that could complicate the findings, as the dangers of vitamins lie primarily with one: getting too much vitamin D.
But the gist of the new findings echo previous studies, which have also found that supplements can be dangerous in some cases — and that those risks may be increasing.
A 2017 study, for instance, found that calls to poison control centers stemming from supplements increased by about 50 percent from 2005 to 2012.
The study reported 275,000 supplement exposures between 2000 and 2012, with about 4 percent resulting in serious medical outcomes, which the National Poison Data System defines as ranging from requiring treatment but not life-threatening to death.
That would mean more than 12,000 people requiring treatment due to supplement use over those dozen years.
One of the supplements that the study found to be “associated with considerable toxicity” was energy products.
“Everyone’s heard of Red Bull,” Henry Spiller, director of the Central Ohio Poison Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and a co-author of that 2017 study, told Healthline. “There’s a sense of safety because they’ve seen their parents drinking coffee — everything is fine.”
There could also be potential dangers if you’re out in the heat for a long time or if these dietary supplements interact with medications you’re taking, he added.
Spiller says these supplements are popular with young people. He noted adolescents often drink them before workouts, especially in situations where they’re trying to power through something like two-a-day preseason football practices in the summer.
A 2017 study concluded that overconsumption of energy drinks — or drinking them with alcohol — can cause arrhythmias, an abnormal heartbeat.
The study concluded moderate use by people without pre-existing heart problems was likely safe, but it advised considering requiring warning labels on the products and that people ask their doctors before trying them.
Or noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warnings about supplements sold for energy, weight loss, muscle building, and sexual function.
She also called for manufacturers to take greater responsibility for the safe use of their products and noted that some legislators are pushing to ban the sale of weight loss supplements to minors.
An agency spokesperson pointed to recent efforts to “modernize” the FDA’s oversight of supplements, action against supplements that claimed to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and a new tool to better inform the public of supplements making unlawful marketing claims.
“One of the FDA’s top goals is to achieve the right balance between preserving consumers’ access to safe, well-manufactured, and accurately labeled supplements, while protecting the public from unsafe and unlawful products,” the spokesperson told Healthline. “We are especially concerned about risks to vulnerable populations, including children and adolescents.”
She also noted that the agency evaluates new studies that come out “as part of the body of evidence to further our understanding about a particular issue and assist in our mission to protect public health.”
“The FDA only has oversight if they find it dangerous,” he noted. “It’s studies like ours and studies like this that are going to allow them to begin to take action.”
For now, though, the role of protecting young people from potential risks largely falls to parents, coaches, and teachers.
If the goal is losing weight, building muscle, or doing better at sports, she said, then sleep, eating balanced meals, working out, and staying away from drugs, alcohol, and smoking are the best ways to achieve those goals.
A new study adds to the evidence that dietary supplements — for energy, weight loss, or muscle building — can be harmful to children and young adults in some cases.
Experts said studies like this could potentially allow the FDA to more tightly regulate the supplement market.
They also advised parents to encourage kids to stay away from supplements and to point out that factors such as diet, sleep, and exercise are more effective ways to achieve fitness goals.
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