Dietary Supplements May Be Harming Your Kidneys

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Health supplements may promise wellness, but in reality they can come with risks and damage.

The human body is a truly remarkable thing. It has some 37 trillion cells all working in relative harmony to drive these big bipedal machines; meanwhile, our organs are smartly constructed to handle the heavy lifting. Take the kidneys, for example. These two bean-shaped organs that live just downstairs from the ribcage filter around a half cup of blood every minute, removing wastes and extra water. They are filtering superstars – and given a little love and care, in most circumstances they function wonderfully.

But part of that love and care means not overtaxing them by flooding the body with damaging things. And that's where the discussion of supplements comes in.

S. Adam Ramin, M.D., writes about the matter for U.S. News, noting that:

"...everything you put into your body is noticed by your kidneys. They process and filter. And if they aren't 100 percent healthy or you're at risk for a kidney condition, the result can be catastrophic. Some herbs found in certain dietary supplements have been clinically associated with kidney damage, for example, even in people who have 'healthy' kidney function. These supplements aren't Food and Drug Administration-regulated. In fact, their makers don't have to prove their products are safe for consumption, and these products aren't tested for ingredient quality."

This comes as little surprise – and it's something we've written about frequently on TreeHugger: Supplements do not require FDA approval before hitting the shelves; and in fact, the FDA has to prove a supplement is not safe before they can remove it from the market.

And it's not just the kidneys that are at risk. Ramin points out that supplements can also cause adverse reactions to other medications or supplements you may already be taking. "For example," he writes, "certain supplements can cause medical problems in people who are already taking diuretics ... or ACE inhibitor medications for the treatment of heart disease."

Vitamins and supplements are undeniably attractive – concentrated plant compounds in a tidy little pill can seem like a magic bullet, especially when accompanied by the marketing force of a $40-billion-a-year industry. And believe me, I'd love it if people could rely on more natural ingredients instead of pharmaceuticals. But it's a broken system.

According to Consumer Reports, a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that in the four years between 2008 to 2011, the FDA received 6,307 reports of health problems from dietary supplements, including 92 deaths, hundreds of life-threatening conditions, and more than 1,000 serious injuries or illnesses. They add that the due to underreporting, the real number of problems may have been far greater.

If you take supplements, the most important thing is to discuss them with your doctor. But as Ramin points out, it's hard to beat the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Drink plenty of water, eat a well-balanced diet filled with colorful fruits and vegetables, get some exercise most days a week. "There's no substitute for these things," he says.

"You won't find a miracle in a fancy bottle of water, and you won't see it in nutritional supplements, either, he adds. "Sometimes, you'll actually find the opposite: health risks and damage."