Dietary supplements—vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, plus substances such as enzymes, organ tissues, and metabolites—make up a significant portion of the CAM industry. Information on these products can easily be found on the Internet. And yet, the effectiveness and safety of many of these supplements remains unproven. Here are some things you need to know when searching CAM websites.
There’s no shortage of data regarding dietary supplements on the Internet. Many sites dedicated to oral health supplements are retail sites selling products or linked directly to a vendor. Many of these sites claim to treat, prevent, diagnose, or even cure specific diseases. But how credible are these claims?
Other sites are personal sites without links to vendors; government, industry or academic sites describing particular supplements; and sites containing referenced articles about the supplements.
Web-based health claims about supplements are not always true. Websites may contain incorrect or misleading statements, some of which can directly result in serious harm to consumers.
However, it is not only the claims made on these websites that can be misleading. The information many sites choose not to disclose can be equally dangerous. Some retail CAM websites leave out the standard federal disclaimer, which informs the user that the website’s information is general in nature and cannot take the place of medical evaluation, diagnoses, and treatment by a health care provider.
Many do not disclose potential adverse health effects such as heart attacks, strokes, arrhythmias, increased blood pressure, and heart palpitations. Others leave out the recommended dosage of supplements. The information on some websites that is intended to enhance your health may actually jeopardize it.
The 1994 passage of the Dietary Supplement and Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which states that manufacturers don’t have to prove the safety or efficacy of a dietary supplement before it is placed on the market, limited the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) control over dietary supplements. The act also made it easier for less-than-reputable information regarding dietary supplements to be posted on the Internet.
Although the DSHEA stripped some of the FDA control over dietary supplements and placed the burden of determining the safety and efficacy of these supplements more heavily on the consumer, it did not leave consumers completely without guidance.
When the DSHEA passed, Congress established the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to promote a greater understanding of dietary supplements. To this end, the ODS evaluates scientific information on supplements, stimulates and supports research, and works to educate the public. The ODS website contains a database of federally funded research projects on dietary supplements. If you have questions about the ingredients found in dietary supplements, as well as related health outcomes and biological effects, you can access the ODS database to learn more.
Paying close attention to the language CAM websites use to describe supplements can also alert you to false or misleading information. Beware of the following red flags:
Vague claims—such as “breakthrough,” “cure-all,” and “miracle”—that present no legitimate research to support themUse of pseudomedical jargon, such as detoxify or purify, to describe a product’s effectsClaims that a product is backed by scientific studies, without references to those studiesFailure to list side effects or claim they do not existTestimonials that sound too good to be true.Accusations that the government, the medical profession, or drug companies are suppressing information about a given supplement
The next time you’re searching the Internet for information on a new supplement, remember to read the claims made on CAM websites with caution. Be aware that there may be significant omissions in the information you’re being given. Your best bet for accurate information is a government or not-for profit web site. Finally, remember to always consult a physician before using a dietary supplement or other non-FDA-regulated substance.
Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion website. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietsupp/ch1.htm. Accessed May 13, 2016.
Dietary supplements. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at:
http://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/default.htm. Updated April 4, 2016. Accessed May 13, 2016.
Fox S, Fallows D. Internet Health Resources. Pew Internet & American Life Project website. Available at:
http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2003/Internet-Health-Resources.aspx. Published July 16, 2003. Accessed May 13, 2016.
Fox S, Fallows D. Internet health resources. Pew Recearch Center website. Available at:
http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2000/The-Online-Health-Care-Revolution.aspx. Accessed May 13, 2016.
Tips for older dietary supplement users. Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/food/dietarysupplements/ucm110493.htm. Updated May 11, 2014. Accessed May 13, 2016.
Using dietary supplements wisely. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Available at: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/supplements/wiseuse.htm. Updated June 2014. Accessed May 13, 2016.
Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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