Does your bone health supplement pass the safety test?

In 2010 the Department of Health and Human Services introduced new guidelines for the production of dietary supplements. Today it is clear that these rules help in some ways, but in many ways allow supplement manufacturers to write their own rules.

You might be surprised to learn that nutritional supplements are classified by the FDA as ‘special foods’, and not drugs. Because of this distinction, supplements are not bound to the same safety and effectiveness requirements as drugs, even through they sometimes contain drug-like properties.

You might think that with this loose definition of supplements, the FDA would be extra cautious about those supplements that do make it to market. But that is not the case. The FDA has permission to stop a company from making a dietary supplement only when it can prove that the product poses a significant risk. In short, dietary supplements are considered safe until proven unsafe.

This approach is the reverse of the way prescription and non-prescription drugs are treated, and is counter to the philosophy and training of respected doctors.

Compounding this concern, dietary supplements are usually self-prescribed, so there is no system in place to collect and report bad reactions and side effects.  This makes it extremely important that consumers know the safety risks of certain supplement ingredients, interactions, formulas, and trends.

Herbal supplements have a number of health concerns. Certain herbal supplements have been found to contain “extra” ingredients like germs, pesticides, or toxic heavy metals.  Some “herbal” supplements have been found to contain prescription drugs or other compounds that are not listed on their labels. And because herbal supplements contain plant parts, another concern is that they may contain toxic chemicals, as different parts of plants have different effects on health - not all of which are beneficial.

Another unknown with supplements under their current regulation is their interaction with other supplements and prescribed drugs.  The FDA does not require drug interaction testing for new supplements – putting the responsibility in the hands of the maker. That’s where the credibility and professionalism of the maker comes in to play.  Institute for Better Bone Health, for example, is founded by a team of world class orthopedic doctors, so we knew to offer two versions of Silical® 2 (part of Silical® System) – one with vitamin K, and one without for those taking the blood thinner warafin (also known as Coumadin®).  Vitamin K, specifically vitamin K2, is important for bone strength but it can interfere with the effects of this drug.

A final concern is over exaggerated product claims.  As a best practice, avoid any supplement that claims to work like a prescription drug, or that promises weight loss, body-building and (ahem) -- enhanced sexual performance.

So, while it can be fun to browse the supplements aisle at your grocery store and compare labels and products, it’s also important to find out if the maker has quality controls in place.  These include carefully researched ingredients that do not include any unknown medicinal extracts; ingredients that are selective and consistent with guidelines provided by the FDA and NIH; and production in world-class facilities.

Does your supplement pass the test?

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