GUEST COLUMNIST: You must think twice before popping those supplements

Monday August 19 2019

Dr Chris Peterson

Dr Chris Peterson 

By Dr Chris Peterson

One of my 50-year-old patient with history of obstructive lung diseases, a respiratory disease that makes breathing difficult by narrowing airways, decided to take matter in his own hands. The consequence wasn’t too fruitful. In fact, made his condition from better to worse.

This man had a positive history of smoking for almost 20 years before he quit recently. Since his diagnosis, he was doing well with regular medication and other factors. And we have always had productive doctor-to-patient communication during his regular check-ups.

A doubt

One fine day, he asks, “Can I take other medication?”

“It depends. What kind?” I ask.

“I would like to try vitamin and herbal supplements that someone suggested. Especially at this very stage when I recently quit smoking, they are believed to be effective for that,” he says


I was clear to him that it wasn’t a wise thing to do, “Unfortunately, the protocol does not allow you to take alternative or integrative therapies. We do not know about the safety of other medication, especially with a drug that is still being tested.”

When things went wrong

I presumed I had resolved his query but one day he calls in the middle of the night complaining of profound shortness of breath, coughing up blood, night sweats and increased weight loss. I was alarmed and called him to come to the hospital for tests where a chest x-ray showed diffuse interstitial infiltrates consistent with pneumonitis. I tried to run further investigations, which came to a conclusion that he had tuberculosis too.

Surprisingly, this was not known toxicity, not even among “rare” side effects. I asked him if anything had been different in the past month; had he started taking any medication?

He responds, “I did start taking those herbal supplements last month.”

“What kind of supplements?” I ask.

He named 15 supplements, many of which I had never heard of. I was furious not just because he took those supplements despite being warned but also because he did so without even trying to figure out what could be the side effects.

“It’s possible that the interaction between your drugs and supplements [not prescribed] has compromised your immune system, eventually causing all this to happen” I inform.

With regrets, he says, “I never imagined that my supplements could cause a problem. They’re natural, and I didn’t need a prescription for them. Their marketing campaign showed real people with real improvements and I was sold by that.”

I asked him to stop taking those supplements and arranged weekly consultations with him to improve his condition.


‘Herbal’, ‘all natural’ - these are labels that make most of us feel like whatever product they are associated with can do us no harm.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and some pure natural supplements can be potent enough to cause serious harm or even death.

Many people shun prescription drugs in favour of remedies that are more aligned with nature, and while many of those natural remedies are effective, and may be less dangerous than pharmaceuticals, we cannot afford to assume that all of them are harmless, and can be used without any restrictions.

Be aware of supplements. They can be hazardous to your health, and always check with a doctor or other qualified medical practitioner before you use any medication, whether it is natural or not.