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Medications and Dietary Supplements: A Dangerous Mix

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By Helen Varvi, Deputy Director

Those of us who frequently take a combination of prescription or over-the-counter medications usually don't think there is any danger when we also take vitamins or other dietary supplements. But there could be, according to FDA and CDC reports.

One CDC survey indicated that 34% of participants (approximately 72 million people) were taking some kind of dietary supplement along with prescription medication. The fact is that some supplements may increase the effect of medications and others may decrease it – there could even be some life-threatening consequences. For example, St. John's Wort can make HIV, heart, and depression treatments less effective. Taking ginkgo biloba and any blood thinners such as warfarin, aspirin or vitamin could increase the possibility of serious internal bleeding or stroke.

Most health providers will tell you that the best way to get an adequate amount of essential nutrients is to eat a variety of foods, and supplements should not be used as a substitute for healthy eating. Many people don't realize that so-called "natural" products such as herbals, fish oil, botanicals, amino acids, and enzymes can be harmful. But these ingredients may interact with medication and, as noted above, can be very dangerous for people with certain medical conditions. This is true for older adults, but also for children who metabolize substances at different rates depending on their age.

You should always inform your doctor if you are having surgery and are taking supplements, as these may need to be decreased or suspended. They could negatively react with medications that might be prescribed to you before or after surgery. And while the FDA does oversee the dietary supplement industry for product safety and misleading claims, it is the manufacturers and distributors of these products who ensure minimum quality standards, but not necessarily effectiveness.

Remember these tips if you are thinking about taking dietary supplements:

  • At every doctor visit, bring a list of all the medications and any supplements you are currently taking, including dosage and frequency.
  • Check with your doctor before adding any new supplements to your daily medications
  • Always inform your healthcare professionals as to any changes in your health conditions, especially any illnesses or surgery.
Learn more about prevention information for seniors and older adults on our blog.
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