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Bad Medicine: Are Your Supplements Fake?

Updated: May 10, 2023

Supplements are a great way to address health deficiencies and imbalances in the body. Combined with the right labs and blood work, a knowledgeable doctor can even prescribe supplements to reverse and eliminate diseases and disorders, avoiding the need for dangerous and toxic pharmaceutical drugs.

Not all supplements are created equal, however. In fact, the majority of supplements on the market are of low quality. In some cases, they contain lower levels of the ingredients than indicated. In other cases, they contain none of what is indicated. In the worst cases, these fake supplements contain actual undisclosed pharmaceutical drugs.

Fake supplements in the marketplace have become an increasing problem due to the growing interest in health and wellness. More than 50% of adults in the United States use dietary supplements. It’s a $35 billion dollar industry–and it has virtually no oversight.

Dietary supplements are classified as a category of food under the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. This means they are not subjected to the same premarket safety or effectiveness testing required by the FDA for drugs.

The only oversight of supplements occurs AFTER they are already on the shelves in the marketplace. Even then, the FDA mainly relies on adverse event reporting and consumer complaints to monitor unsafe supplements, as well as some inspections and screenings of imported products.

The FDA has severely limited resources and manpower and is only able to test a small percentage of supplements on the market. This means the vast majority of supplements have zero inspection or review by anyone at any point, and no prior registration is needed to start selling a supplement.

Amazon, which owns 77% of the online supplement market, has warned customers products on their platform could very well be counterfeit, and has even sent correspondences recommending customers dispose of supplements after discovering they were in fact fake. Guilty parties behind the fake supplements simply disappear and Amazon has no way of tracking them down.

In 2015, the New York State attorney general’s office conducted independent testing on supplements sold at Walmart, Target, GNC and Walgreens. Roughly 80% of the products tested contained NONE of the ingredients listed on the label. That is truly astonishing.

Products claiming to be Ginseng, Ginkgo Biloba, St. John’s Wort, Echinacea, Saw Palmetto, Valerian Root and Garlic instead contained some combination of cheap fillers, including rice, wheat, house plants, beans, asparagus, peas, garlic, daisy, mustard, radish, cassava, palm, wild carrots, citrus, spruce and pine.

Even in instances where the FDA has found adulterated supplements containing actual pharmaceutical drugs, the only repercussion is a warning from the FDA. In 67.9% of these instances, second and even third warnings were later issued because new and different drugs were found when the same products were later retested.

So not only are these fake dietary supplements being found to contain actual unregulated and undisclosed pharmaceutical drugs, the FDA knows it, the company knows they know it, and they are allowed to continue selling them, and even add in new undisclosed drugs. They are never forced to fix them or remove them from the marketplace.

The most common adulterated dietary supplements found by the FDA between 2007 and 2016 were those intended for sexual enhancement (45.5%), to promote weight loss (40.9%) and to build muscle (11.9%).

Sexual enhancement supplements most often contained Sildenafil (Viagra). Weight loss supplements most often contained Sibutramine, a drug that was banned by the FDA in 2010. Muscle supplements most often contained synthetic steroids or steroid-like substances. Antidepressants were also found in both sexual enhancement and weight loss supplements, including Dapoxetine, an SSRI not approved by the FDA.

These are all just glimpses into a virtually unregulated industry specifically geared towards improving health. The potential for interaction with other medications or an underlying health conditions is hard to avoid when a person doesn’t even know the “natural” supplement they’re taking contains one or more pharmaceutical drugs.

It’s no wonder there are a reported 23,000 ER visits and 2,000 hospitalizations each year due to dietary supplements. Adverse reactions reported have included stroke, acute liver injury, kidney failure, pulmonary embolism and death.

There are trusted supplement companies producing medical-grade, clean, effective, high-quality products. Finding the right supplement for the right condition can have enormous health benefits. The best thing to do is work with a doctor of integrative or functional medicine who has the experience and knowledge of what brands, forms and dosages are appropriate for each of their patient’s needs.

For my patients, I utilize the online dispensary Fullscript. They carry only the best supplements sourced directly from the best companies. Create accounts in my personal dispensary at Fullscript to view all of my top supplement recommendations, customized protocols and browse their entire supplement catalogues.


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