By Claudine Ryan, Tegan Osborne and Dr Jocelyn Lowinger.
It might be echinacea for a cold, fish oil for your heart, or St John’s Wort for your mood. Chances are, at some point, you have taken supplements.
More than half of us take a supplement or other complementary medicine each year, and some experts say it could be up to 80 per cent of us. In 2014, the complementary medicines industry as a whole generated $3.5 billion in revenue, and profits are rising.
Yet the reality is that most of us take supplements on trust. We often don’t know what ingredients they contain, where they come from or whether they are even effective for our condition.
At worst, supplements can be dangerous. But for most, there’s little reliable evidence they work for much at all — and they are not as closely regulated for safety and effectiveness as you might think.
It truly is a case of buyer beware. So what are some of the things you need to keep in mind before you buy and use supplements and complementary medicines?
They can be dangerous.
It’s tempting to think that supplements are ‘safe’ because they are ‘natural’. But ‘natural’ does not equal ‘safe’.
This week, Four Corners airs an investigation by the New York Times and PBS Frontline program into the hidden dangers in vitamins and supplements. The program identified a number of supplements that had been linked to liver injury, with one weight loss supplement linked to more than 70 cases of liver injury and at least one death.
But this isn’t just an issue in the United States. The potential dangers of using dietary supplements made headlines in Australia earlier this year with the case of Western Australian man Matthew Whitby, who lost his liver — most likely as a result of taking a protein powder with green tea extract.
Since then it has emerged that herbal supplements have been linked to at least six Australian organ transplants since 2011, and many commonly used dietary supplements have been linked to kidney damage.
While these cases sound horrifying, clinical pharmacologist Professor Ric Day, from St Vincent’s Hospital, Sydney, said cases like Mr Whitby’s are unusual and could happen with prescribed medications as well.
In his view, the risks of taking supplements are quite low as they have been given “a wide level of exposure in the population”.
Supplements are not regulated like other medicines.
Complementary medicines and supplements don’t receive the same level of testing and regulation as prescription drugs before they can be sold.
Australia has a two-tiered system for the regulation of medicines, which is overseen using a risk-based approach by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Medicines with what the TGA considers low-risk ingredients — including most complementary medicines — receive less checking than higher risk products, and are listed as “Aust-L”.