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What you need to know about the safety of taking supplements

Posted at 6:25 AM, May 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-14 06:25:50-04

Holistic health is big businesses, and vitamins, minerals and supplements make up a large portion of that market with annual sales of $36 billion and climbing.

But do they work and are they safe? I spoke to a supplement shop owner and an integrative psychiatrist about the effectiveness and safety of dietary supplments.

Uli Laczkovich owns Ullman's Health and Beauty in Berkley, where wellness is the name of the game.

"If your gut is mediocre, it could affect other functions of your body," Laczkovich said.

Laczkovich spent decades as a pharmacist in Europe where many of the supplements sold over the counter, in store and online in the U.S. can only be found in pharmacies and some by prescription only. That’s because supplements can have a real effect.

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"Ashwagandha is a big seller?" I asked.

"That's why Canada is a super big seller. Because it really works. So, customers feel when they take it," Laczkovich said.

Ashwagandha users say they feel relief from anxiety and stress. There are a growing number of Americans are turning to supplements like Ginkgo Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Kava Kava, Valerian Root, and magnesium for their potential mental health benefits.

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But some of these supplements can interact with medicine making some less effective and others more dangerous.

"Saint John's wort is relatively safe, but it has a tremendous number of interactions with drugs," Dr. Lila Massoumi said.

Massoumi is an integrative medicine psychiatrist who combines traditional medicine with alternative treatments, like supplements. She says before you take a supplement, it’s important to know how it will affect medicines you’re already taking. For instance. St. John's Wort can make other drugs less potent.

"Making your birth control pills less effective, making blood thinners less effective, anti-cancer drugs less effective," Massoumi said.

It can also interact with widely used anti-depressants causing a building up of the neurotransmitter serotonin with potentially negative side effects .

Other supplements pose their own risk: Ginkgo Biloba can increase your risk of bleeding, Kava Kava can prolong the effect of anesthesia and have been linked to liver damage, and Valerian root can increase the effects of seizure drugs and medicines to treat insomnia

But that doesn’t mean you have to shy away from supplements.

"Everyone's a candidate for treatment with supplements, but not everyone will be treated sufficiently with supplements alone," Massoumi said.

Massoumi says if your symptoms are mild and you’re looking for a little boost, supplements may do the job. But if you need more than that, it may be time to get professional help.

"If your symptoms are moderate to severe, then you're going to want something with the large effect size. And in general, medications have a larger effect size than supplements," Massoumi said.

If you’re already taking supplements, let your provider know. It's a matter of safety.

Back at Ullman’s, if tablets and pills aren't your thing, Uli says try a tea like this Ashwagandha latte that can help with anxiety.

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"It also helps us food cravings. Whatever stress does to you, it will be a little bit lessened," Laczkovich said.

If you’re interested in using supplements to manage your health, there is a ton of information online. It can be overwhelming and it’s difficult to know what to trust.

Dr. Massoumi suggests starting at examine.com as it was founded by a former FDA reviewer.

She says it’s scientifically sound and is great to learn what supplements help, for what conditions and to what degree.

She also suggests consumerlab.com for individual product reviews. Is the product what it claims to be? Is it reliable or contaminated?

Both sites are ad-free and independent and a good place to start if you want to incorporate supplements in your health care regime