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Dietary Supplements: Ask Your Doctor To Be Sure

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 11, 2001 – People thinking about taking dietary supplements to pep up, bulk up or slim down ought to ask their doctor or other health provider first.

Dietary supplements can affect different people differently and may also interact adversely with prescription drugs, said Army Col. Mike Heath, the pharmacy consultant with the Office of the Army Surgeon General.

"It is in your best interest to talk to your health care provider before you take a dietary supplement," Heath said, "particularly if you know that you have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, [or] asthma."

Dietary supplements, which include so-called energy boosters, over-the-counter diet pills and bodybuilding drinks or mixes, can also pose risks for people not taking prescription drugs.

"Anytime you put a chemical in your body, your body metabolizes or digests it, and there can be potential side effects," he noted, to include allergic reactions.

Heath said energy-enhancing dietary supplements provide a caffeine-like boost, similar to how strong coffee affects the central nervous system.

"It is a stimulant - it gives you a 'buzz' and affects the heart and cardio-vascular system in terms of raising your blood pressure and increasing the heart rate," he explained.

Heath recommends that military members not take dietary supplements, such as products containing the chemical compound ephedra, before engaging in strenuous physical activity.

"I'd caution them not to take these performance enhancing drugs or energy boosters and then go out and perform the PT test, particularly in hot weather," he said. "If you had some underlying problems, you could be setting yourself up for potentially serious side affects."

People should also be aware that, with the exception of vitamins, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate dietary supplements the same way as it does prescription and other over-the-counter products, Heath said.

Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, the dietary supplement manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe before it is marketed, according to the FDA (see http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov website).

The FDA is responsible for taking action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market, according to the website. Generally, manufacturers do not need to register with FDA nor get FDA approval before producing or selling dietary supplements.

"There is no [FDA] standardization of quality control in terms of what is in" dietary supplements, Heath noted, adding that the potency of doses and other inert additives can vary from batch to batch.

The bottom line, Heath said, is that dietary supplements are "chemicals you are putting into your body."

"How do you know, unless you ask someone qualified, whether or not these products can interfere with other drugs, to include any other over-the-counter products that you are taking?" he concluded.

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