When someone with a thyroid or autoimmune thyroid condition is trying to restore their health back to normal, it of course is important to eat well, do a good job of managing their stress, get proper sleep, etc. However, nutritional supplementation is almost always required. There are a few reasons for this, but perhaps the main one is because even if someone eats mostly organic food it still is difficult to correct nutritional imbalances through diet alone. One problem is that many people rely too much on supplements and herbs, and although adverse reactions are rare, they do occur at times.
Of course adverse reactions are pretty common with both over-the-counter and prescription drugs. In fact, according to the CDC, every day in the United States, 105 people die due to a drug overdose, and another 6,748 are treated in emergency departments for the misuse or abuse of drugs (1). To be fair, not all of these are due to medication, but about 60% are due to pharmaceuticals, which is still a very high number. As a society we have become so used to people having adverse reactions from taking prescription drugs that we don’t tend to think much of it when this happens. On the other hand, whenever there are any reports about nutritional supplements or herbs which resulted in a negative reaction it usually gets a lot of attention.
The Similarities Between Peanuts and Herbs
There is no question that side effects and adverse reactions are much less common with nutritional supplements and herbs when compared to medication. However, this doesn’t mean that adverse reactions don’t occur. Just as some people can be allergic to certain foods, some people can be allergic to the ingredients in certain supplements, as well as herbs. I’m not just talking about a food intolerance, but a true allergy. For example, if someone has a peanut allergy and eats peanuts, the consequences can be severe, and can even be life-threatening at times. The same can also be true with certain herbs. One example involves echinacea, which is a well known herb found in most health food stores, as well as in many pharmacies and retail stores. I realize there is controversy over taking echinacea when one has an autoimmune condition, but I’m not going to discuss this right now. What I do want to discuss is how if someone has an allergy to plants in the daisy family then they might experience an allergic reaction to echinacea. Anaphylaxis is also possible in some cases if someone has an allergy to echinacea. Once again, most people who take echinacea do fine, and I’m not trying to single out echinacea, as people can have an allergic reaction to other supplements as well.
This actually happened to one of my patients recently. I have been recommending the herb bugleweed to patients with hyperthyroidism and Graves’ Disease for years without a problem. However, recently one of my patients experienced what appeared to be an allergic reaction to this herb. Fortunately nothing serious happened, and she simply stopped taking the bugleweed. I’m not bringing this up to scare anyone, but just to make you aware that there are risks to taking certain supplements and herbs. With regards to herbs, even though adverse reactions are possible, I still recommend them to my patients. Everything of course comes down to risks vs. benefits, and whenever taking any supplement or herb you need to consider this.
While it is possible to have an allergic reaction to a specific nutrient or herb in a supplement, having a sensitivity is more common. So for example, someone might not have an IgE-mediated allergy when consuming a certain supplement, but they instead might have a delayed reaction to one or more of the ingredients. Sometimes it’s not the actual nutrients or herbs that they’re reacting to, but the fillers in the supplements. This can happen with medication as well, as someone might not feel well when taking thyroid medication, and in some cases it’s not the medication itself that is causing the problem, but the fillers in the medication.
Are There Heavy Metals In Your Supplements?
In addition to experiencing a severe allergy to taking supplements or herbs, certain toxicities are also possible. For example, in the past I wrote an article entitled “Peripheral Neuropathy and Thyroid Health“, and I brought up a case of peripheral neuropathy related to arsenic toxicity, which might have been caused by excessive intake of dietary supplements (2). This involved a 74-year old woman who was taking large amounts of fish oils and glucosamine sulfate supplements, which were identified as possible sources of arsenic. Upon stopping the supplements the urine arsenic levels had reduced, and there was an improvement in the patient’s symptoms. Another case study revealed that kelp supplements taken by a 54-year old woman had high arsenic levels (3). Within weeks of discontinuing the supplements her symptoms resolved and her arsenic blood and urine levels were undetectable.
Does this mean we should stop taking nutritional supplements? Of course not, as one can argue that there are also toxins in the food we eat, the air we breathe, etc. We’re obviously not going to completely eliminate our exposure to toxins no matter how hard we try. However, you do need to be cautious when purchasing supplements, as the quality does matter. In addition, if someone is taking a specific supplement and has a negative reaction, one needs to consider that they might not be sensitive to the actual nutrient or herb they’re taking, but instead might be reacting to toxins in that supplement. For example, if someone is taking a fish oil supplement high in arsenic, and they begin to develop symptoms they didn’t have prior to taking this supplement, they might conclude that they shouldn’t take fish oils, when the problem wasn’t with the fish oils, but instead was with the toxins in the specific fish oil supplement they were taking.
High Doses of Synthetic Supplements Can Be Toxic
Besides the fact that some supplements have toxins such as heavy metals, taking large doses of certain nutrients alone can cause adverse reactions. Some examples of vitamins and minerals which can cause a toxicity when taken in higher doses include vitamin A, selenium, and iron. And of course everyone is different, so there is really no way to tell who will experience a negative reaction to a higher dosage. For example, someone might do fine when taking 800 mcg of selenium, while another person might experience toxicity reactions when taking 400 mcg of selenium. And the same is true with other nutrients.
One also needs to be aware that sometimes the supplement manufacturers can make mistakes which can lead to serious problems. For example, in 2008 there was a case were 201 individuals had adverse reactions to nutritional supplements which contained an excess amount of selenium and chromium (4). When the supplements were tested it was found that they had almost 200 times the reported amount of selenium. Some of the selenium toxicity symptoms people experienced included alopecia, fingernail changes, gastrointestinal symptoms, and memory difficulties (4). Fortunately none of the patients required hospitalization. Obviously this is a rare situation, but it’s another reason to purchase supplements from reputable companies. Of course this doesn’t mean that it can’t happen with a good company, but this is less likely to happen with a company that has good quality control standards.
How Can You Avoid An Adverse Reaction From Taking Supplements?
If you are taking supplements as part of a natural treatment protocol, or just on a wellness basis, then you might be wondering what you can do to avoid having an adverse reaction from any supplements you ingest. There really is no way to completely avoid having an adverse reaction, but here are some things you can do to minimize the chances of this happening:
1. Purchase supplements and herbs from reputable companies. I would definitely recommend to only purchase supplements from companies with a good reputation. Of course this doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be any toxins in the products, as there have been a few instances of well known companies where testing revealed high amounts of toxins in some of their products. But going with a company who has good quality control measures will greatly reduce the risk of taking supplements with toxins.
2. Be cautious about taking larger doses of nutrients and herbs unless under the supervision of a healthcare professional. There is a lot of information on the internet and in books, and it’s not uncommon for some people to recommend taking higher doses of supplements and herbs. For example, if you get a 25-OH vitamin D test and if it’s determined you have a vitamin D deficiency, then you might do some searching online and find some information which recommends for you to take 10,000 IU to 15,000 IU/day of vitamin D3 for a short period of time to increase the vitamin D levels. However, if someone has a condition such as hypercalcemia then you don’t want to take high doses of vitamin D3. And even if someone doesn’t have hypercalcemia they would want to be cautious about taking high doses of this vitamin without any supervision. Another example involves iron, as someone might get an iron panel and see they are low in iron, and based on this decide to take iron supplements. However, too much iron can cause oxidative damage. So you definitely need to be cautious.
3. Consider starting with smaller doses of supplements and herbs. The advantage of starting with lower doses is that it can minimize your chances of having an adverse reaction if you are either allergic to an ingredient in the supplement, or if the supplement has toxins. Earlier I gave an example of one person who was fine taking 800 mcg of selenium, whereas another person had an adverse reaction when taking 400 mcg of selenium. If you haven’t taken selenium before then you might not know if you can handle higher doses, and so if you decide to take a selenium supplement it might be wise to start with 200 mcg, or even 100 mcg. Then if all goes well you can slowly increase the dosage.
4. If you need to take multiple supplements, consider taking one at a time. I commonly recommend for my patients to take multiple supplements simultaneously. And while most people do fine taking multiple supplements at the same time, other people don’t do well. If you are following a natural treatment protocol then the disadvantage of starting with one supplement at a time is that it might take longer for you to experience positive changes in your condition. The advantage of starting with one supplement is that if you happen to experience an adverse reaction to one of the supplements you’re taking then it will be easier to screen out. For example, if you take eight supplements all at once and then experience some headaches or digestive problems, then assuming one of the supplements was responsible for this you really have no way of knowing which of the supplements caused these symptoms. On the other hand, if you begin with one supplement and then reintroduce another one every few days there is a much greater chance of figuring out which supplement you are reacting to.
In summary, while nutritional supplements and herbs are usually safer to take than most prescription drugs, adverse reactions are still possible. Some people can have an allergic reaction to certain herbs. And one needs to be aware of the possibility of toxins in the products they use, which is why you want to choose a supplement company with good quality control measures. Also be aware that taking high doses of certain vitamins and minerals can lead to a toxicity. In order to minimize an adverse reaction you want to purchase supplements and herbs from companies with a good reputation, be cautious about taking larger doses of supplements, and consider taking one supplement at a time when beginning a natural treatment protocol.