More than half of Americans have taken a dietary supplement, and it's easy to see why. Popping a pill is painless. Supplements don't require a prescription from a doctor. And there's always some hale bloke out there who will vouch for the miraculous health improvements he experienced while taking this or that herbal remedy.
Plus, herbals often seem safer than drugs and other treatments. If a supplement can be found on stores' shelves alongside healthy foods, it must be wholesome, right?
Wrong. Of the 30,000 products rated by the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, an independent research and publishing organization, less than one percent earned a top score for safety, effectiveness, and quality.
Unlike prescription medications, dietary supplements aren't reviewed or approved by the FDA before they go on sale. And, although manufacturers have been required to prove that new supplements are "reasonably expected to be safe" since 1994, a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine found that this law is largely unenforced.
"Consumers have the idea that the people who are selling herbal remedies are doing it out the goodness of their hearts," says Lauren Streicher, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. But supplement makers are even more profit-driven than pharmaceutical companies, which are subject to FDA review, she says. "Does the FDA make mistakes? Yes. But they're the only protection we've got to make sure greed doesn't get in the way of science."
While most supplements will do more harm to your wallet than to your body, others are downright dangerous. From Anna Miller at U.S. News, here are four herbal supplements doctors love to hate.