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Doctors Warn That Taking Supplements Can Be Risky

PITTSBURGH (KKDA) -- If there's a health condition, there's supplement that supposedly fixes it.

People take fish oil, general vitamins and protein for various reasons.

"Many patients feel very strongly about that the supplements make them feel better in one way or another," Allegheny General Hospital cancer specialist Dr. Gene Finley said.

The problem is that many of these supplements can interact with your prescription medication.

For instance, supplements like saw palmetto for prostate health, lavender for insomnia and fenugreek for cholesterol, inflammation, and infection could potentially put you at risk for bleeding.

"A lot of these are actually natural anticoagulants. So, if a patient is already on a blood thinner, they could potentially bleed more, or if they're going for surgery, they could potentially have more bleeding problems," Dr. Marc Itskowitz with Allegheny General Hospital Internal Medicine said.

To lower high blood sugar, people will take chromium or cinnamon. But these can actually raise blood sugar by speeding up your body's processing of diabetes medicines or by getting an adequate dose in a counterproductive way.

"So, people just pile on the cinnamon, on toast and things, and one of the problems we run into, they're eating more carbohydrates," St. Clair Hospital endocrinologist Dr. Wayne Evron said.

Calcium for the bones, magnesium for migraines, and other mineral supplements can decrease the absorption of antibiotics.

"If patients are going to use those, they have to talk to their doctor about what time of the day they're using it, so it doesn't interact with their other medications," said Itskowitz.

Acai to boost the immune system, echinacea for the common cold and tumeric for infections and inflammation can interfere with cancer drugs.

"Especially in people who are on chemotherapy, I tell the patients not to take it while they're getting chemotherapy," said Finley.

Alfalfa for skin and bowel, and St. John's Wort for depression can affect oral contraceptives.

These supplements can increase the metabolism of oral contraceptive pills by inducing enzymes in the liver.

One tool that can be helpful is Click on supplements, then search alphabetically and you can see interactions.

Doctors urge caution. Avoid supplements all together, but if you feel you must use them, buyer beware.

"This is a very loosely regulated industry. The safety standards are much lower for over-the-counter supplements as compared to prescription medication,"  Itskowitz said.

Doctors also say don't get your information from somebody who owns a health food store, because they're trying to sell you something.

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