Many dietary supplements dangerous for teens, new research suggests

Health supplements may not always be as safe as we think.
Health supplements may not always be as safe as we think.

While taking vitamins may be fine for teens and young adults, supplements for weight loss, muscle-building and added energy may trigger severe medical problems, new research suggests.

Regulations to keep these potentially harmful products out of the hands of young people are urgently needed, the study authors said.

Severe medical problems

"The [US Food and Drug Administration] has issued countless warnings about supplements sold for weight loss, muscle-building or sport performance, sexual function and energy, and we know these products are widely marketed to and used by young people," said lead author Flora Or. She is a researcher with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders, in Boston.

For the study, Or's team looked at FDA reports of medical problems associated with these supplements among people aged 25 and younger between January 2004 and April 2015. The investigators compared these reports with reports made for vitamins.

In all, nearly 1 000 incidents were reported, of which 40% involved a severe medical problem, including hospitalisation and death, the researchers said.

Weight-loss, muscle-building and energy supplements were linked with an almost three times greater risk of severe medical problems compared with vitamins, the findings showed.

Playing Russian roulette

In addition, supplements sold to boost sexual function and clean the colon were tied to about twice the risk of a medical problem.

According to researcher S. Bryn Austin, reputable doctors don't prescribe these types of supplements. Many contain adulterated prescription drugs, banned substances, heavy metals, pesticides and other dangerous chemicals.

Some studies have linked weight-loss and muscle-building supplements with stroke, testicular cancer, liver damage and even death, noted Austin, who is a professor in the department of social and behavioural sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"How can we continue to let the manufacturers of these products and the retailers who profit from them play Russian roulette with America's youth?" Austin said in a school news release. "It is well past time for policymakers and retailers to take meaningful action to protect children and consumers of all ages."

The report was published online in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Image credit: iStock

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