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Are The Supplements You Are Taking Safe?

Each year, Americans spend roughly $28 billion on vitamins, minerals and herbs, all with the assumption they are safe. But are they? Supplement manufacturers aren’t required to disclose ingredient blends, possible interactions with other medications or potential side effects. Rows of plastic bottles might look harmless in the aisle at Whole Foods, but FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says, “These ingredients can pose considerable dangers to consumers who may take products without knowing that the ingredients are present.”

It’s hard to know which items in the vitamin aisle offer genuine health benefits and which merely make false promises. Here’s the lowdown on what those little capsules really contain…

Supplements: Calcium

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard women are more prone to brittle bones due to a lack of calcium. What you might not know? In February 2013, a United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended that women avoid calcium supplements, saying there was little evidence they prevent fractures. Plus, those tablets could be harmful, says Ian Reid, professor of medicine and endocrinology at the University of Auckland: “Calcium supplements increase the risk of heart attacks by 20 to 25 percent and the risk of strokes by 15 to 20 percent.”

RX? Skip this supplement!

Supplements: Vitamin C

Long touted as a healing elixir for the common cold, vitamin C shows up in every form, from drink powder to lozenges. Researcher Hamilia Harri agrees an extra dose may be useful for athletes after brief periods of severe exercise, when the body is more susceptible to illness. But don’t go overboard. High doses of vitamin C can cause diarrhea. Harri says, “There is very little benefit in taking more than one gram of vitamin C per day.”

RX? Proceed with caution.

Supplements: Vitamin E

Many brands claim that vitamin E combats oxidative stress, reduces muscle fatigue and reverses signs of aging. But Dr. Pete Miller of Johns Hopkins University cautions against falling into the “if a little is good, a lot must be better!” trap. While taking up to 15 milligrams may be beneficial, he says, “High-dose supplementation provides no benefit and is associated with increased mortality.” Yikes!

RX? Proceed with caution.

Supplements: Iron

Though female runners are at risk for iron deficiency due to menstruation, the vast majority do not need to pop a pill. Often, good food choices are enough to correct blood loss after that time of the month. Most women require 18 milligrams of iron each day, but iron supplements often contain 50 or more, leading to a host of problems, from black and bloody stools to difficulty breathing—even liver damage!

If you believe you may be iron-deficient, see your doctor. A simple blood test will provide the answer, and your doc can discuss the best way to boost your levels.

RX? Skip this supplement!

Supplements: Salt Tablets

Often sold at running stores, some athletes use salt tablets to replace the sodium lost on hot, sweaty runs. But Nancy Clark, author of Food Guide for Marathoners, says, “Salt tablets are needless for the average female athlete.” For those running over three or four hours, reach for a sports drink containing some sodium instead.

RX? Proceed with caution.

Supplements: Analgesics

Technically, Tylenol is a medication, not a supplement, but many runners treat it like one—almost half(!) of us pop an analgesic before heading out on a run. Recent studies have shown this habit to be detrimental, even deadly. Dr. Kay Brune, a leading researcher on analgesic toxicity, says, “We strongly recommend not to use these analgesics during exercise.” Side effects include gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney dysfunction and cardiovascular problems.

If absolutely necessary, popping a pill after physically demanding exercise is acceptable—but read the label and follow dosing instructions carefully.

RX? Skip this supplement!