Scientists: Supplements May Be Ineffectual, Even Harmful To Women's Health

From multivitamins to weight loss pills, some scientists are warning that dietary supplements are at best a waste of time, and at worst, a risk to women's health.

New research suggests that middle-aged women who take a multivitamin are just creating expensive urine, as there is no sign the pills reduce common cancers, heart disease or death, reports the Wall Street Journal. Results of the largest multivitamin study in postmenopausal women ever conducted were published yesterday in The Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers analyzed data from 161,808 women between the ages of 50 and 79 who participated in the Women's Health Initiative, a government-funded clinical trial that studied the women's health for eight years on average.

The study found that there were few differences in disease outcomes between vitamin and nonvitamin users, and recommended that women focus on getting nutrients from the foods they eat, not vitamins. An excess of water soluble vitamins (whether from food or supplements) is excreted, but excess fat soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, are stored in the liver and can cause negative side effects. "Based on our results, if you fall into the category of the women described here and you do in fact have an adequate diet, there really is no reason to take a multivitamin," said researcher Dr Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, according to The Independent.

While multivitamins may not be helpful or harmful in most cases, today, the Food and Drug Administration is issuing warnings in its continuing investigation into weight loss supplements, according to The New York Times. StarCaps have been promoted by professional football players, featured on the Today show, and sold in vitamin stores without a prescription, as a natural papaya-based dietary supplement. But now the FDA has found that the pills also contain an unlisted ingredient: a pharmaceutical drug call bumetanide, which has dangerous side effects.

In addition to StarCaps, the F.D.A. has found that dozens of weight-loss supplements, most of them imported from China, contain hidden and possibly harmful drugs. The warnings have already prompted recalls by some distributors and an F.D.A. spokeswoman says the agency will issue a longer list of brands that are spiked with drugs in the next few weeks. The current list includes 69 tainted weight-loss supplements, which were marketed under names like Sliminate, Superslim, and Slim Up. The undeclared drugs could cause problems like elevated blood pressure or seizures, and may have toxic interactions with other medications.

The F.D.A. investigation is raising questions about the way dietary supplements are regulated. Unlike drugs, which must be approved before they go on sale, the agency can only spot check supplements after they've go on the market. Even when contaminated products are discovered, the F.D.A. can't remove the pills from stores. It must first try to get the manufacturers to issue a recall, and eventually if the companies do nothing it can seize the products or file criminal charges. The F.D.A. admits there may be hundreds of contaminated drugs on store shelves that they just haven't identified yet.

[Image via Flickr.]

Vitamins Fail to Reduce Health Risks for Women [The Wall Street Journal]
Multivitamin Supplements A Waste Of Time [The Independent]
F.D.A. Finds ‘Natural' Diet Pills Laced With Drugs [The New York Times]