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Dad Takes Too Many Supplements



"My father loves over-the-counter supplements and buys lots of them. By lots, I mean one new supplement a month, on average. At this point, he takes almost 20 a day! 

He watches a lot of television, and whatever is being promoted there, he believes the pitch and buys it. I’m not worried about whether or not he can afford all this; he can. What I worry about is whether these supplements are bad for his health. You see, my father is 85 years old with heart disease, diabetes, and a host of other issues. This behavior makes me uncomfortable. 

Dad is quite proud of his advanced age and credits all the supplements. He actually takes some of his prescribed medication sporadically because he believes the supplements replace those medications. 

I fear disaster is brewing, and would like your advice."



This behavior makes me uncomfortable, too. Even healthy individuals, like athletes, can be harmed by substances they take in significant doses. Your father is playing with his health, and the outcome may be the opposite of what he desires.

Unfortunately in some situations or fortunately in others, people have recently become more active in advocating for their own health. Information is more readily available than it was 20 years ago. This has had a very positive impact in patient care, but has also made it more difficult to convince some about reasonable care options based on science versus snake oil.

At this time, available supplements seem to be multiplying by the day. It seems every fruit and vegetable is now packaged as a miracle drug and sold as such. It’s also very difficult to determine the efficacy of many of these supplements, because research has not been done and retested. Supplements hitting the shelves are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are not medications, and they are not intended to treat or cure anything. Our laws do not currently require them to be safe before being marketed.

It’s illegal to market a dietary supplement as a cure or treatment for a specific disease. Based on what I see every day, manufacturers strongly suggest “solutions” with the use of dietary substances, though. Your father is responding to those thinly veiled promises. It’s also very understandable. If he has been living with chronic disease for some time, he likely wants it to go away. He just latches on to the latest promise. There’s a reason companies advertise: because advertising works. People cling to hope, and that’s what your dad is doing.

Now on to the difficult work of convincing him to use what I call the Ben Franklin, Oscar Wilde, or the Greek poet Hesiod approach, “All things in moderation.” Most supplements in small doses will not harm him, though he must, must speak with his doctor about them, in light of his other medications and his underlying health conditions. He is in no position to play around here. His heart, kidneys, and liver are not going to be functioning optimally. It wouldn’t take too much to overwhelm his fragile system and drive it to failure. 

Playing doctor with medications is dangerous. His actions are ill informed and not safe. Please urge him to have a thorough medication evaluation done with his primary provider. In that appointment, he needs to bring all of his supplements along with his prescribed medications and have a frank discussion with his doctor about what he is taking and why. This is serious, and potentially life threatening. 

I do realize it may not be possible to convince your father to seek the advice of a professional, as he wants to believe the advertisers. Indeed, it’s his life to live and his choice to make. That doesn’t influence my recommendation. He needs advice from an unbiased professional. It will not have great music, pretty packaging, or promise unrealistic outcomes, but the advice will be honest and based on experience and actual science.

I wish you well with this situation.