Doctor’s Tip: Hidden drugs in supplements |

Doctor’s Tip: Hidden drugs in supplements

Health talk

Joel Fuhrman, M.D., author of several books including “Eat to Live,” speaks about Advances in Nutritional Science to Live Healthfully Until 100, from 7:30–9 p.m. Saturday, April 6, at the Third Street Center in Carbondale. Tickets $20 at

The pharmaceutical industry certainly has its problems, but the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry does, too. At least pharmaceuticals have to prove effectiveness and must pass rigorous safety and quality tests. Supplements, on the other hand, don’t have to prove effectiveness, and are poorly regulated (what regulations there are depend in large part on the honor system).

The Nutrition Action publication, put out monthly by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, had an article in a recent issue titled “Are there hidden drugs in your supplements?” We’ve all seen ads in newspapers and magazines promoting drugs with “natural formulas” that work “better than Viagra” to help with “energy, libido, and sexual performance.” Between 2007 and 2016, the FDA found 746 supplements that contained hidden drugs, and nearly half were products touted for male sexual enhancement. These hidden ingredients were Viagra-like drugs, many of which had never been tested for safety or effectiveness. The following quote in the article is from Pieter Cohen, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who researches supplement safety: “A combination of consumer demand and unscrupulous manufacturers has created a huge market for dangerous sexual enhancement supplements.”

Weight-loss supplements are another offender. Some contain sibutramine, an appetite suppressant that’s no longer allowed in prescription drugs due to increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Other weight-loss supplements have potentially dangerous amphetamine-like stimulants.

Muscle-building supplements, which sometimes contain dangerous steroid and steroid-like compounds, are another offender. Some sports supplements contain problematic amphetamine-like stimulants as well. In 2004 the FDA banned ephedra, due to safety concerns, but supplement companies started adding ephedra-like compounds, with unproven safety records.

The take home messages are these:

• Just because a product is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe.

• You can’t be sure what’s really in many supplements.

• The benefits that supplement manufacturers claim about their products are usually unproven.

• Humans evolved to get nutrients through their food, not supplements.

• Supplements are rarely helpful — especially if you eat fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds every day — and can be harmful.

• Beware of health care providers who sell supplements. (How can they be unbiased?).

• There’s no reliable system to determine if supplements are harming people.

• The law should be changed so that before putting a product on the market, it would have to be proven in human studies to be effective. The law should also require that the FDA and consumers could tell exactly what’s in a product — in easy-to-understand language.

• The most “natural” and certainly the best thing to do is to exercise daily and eat a healthy diet, and avoid supplements, and if possible pharmaceuticals as well.

• Unfortunately, the supplement industry has undue influence in Washington, so don’t expect needed changes in the law to occur any time soon.

There are two caveats:

• If you’re on a strict plant-based diet, you need to take a B12 supplement every day (B12 is made by bacteria in dirt, and with treated water and pre-washed produce we don’t eat much dirt these days. Animals eat dirt, and B12 is stored in their meat).

• Over the millions of years the human genome was developing, early humans were living in equatorial Africa mainly naked, absorbing a lot of sunlight, resulting in vitamin D levels of 100 or more. Most Americans fail to achieve the standard of 30, so we need to be taking 1000-2000 i.u. of D3 daily.

Retired physician Greg Feinsinger, M.D., is author of new book “Enjoy Optimal Health, 98 Health Tips From a Family Doctor,” available on Amazon. Profits go towards an endowment to the University of Colorado School of Medicine to add prevention and nutrition to the curriculum. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention, diabetes reversal, nutrition, and other health issues. Call 379-5718 for appt. For questions about his column, email

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