The Grapevine

Are Alternative Medicines, Supplements Safe? Use Among Teens, Children On The Rise

Researchers at the University of Illinois (UIC), Chicago, found the use of alternative medicines among children has doubled since 2003. And despite medical professionals expressing safety concerns about them, supplement use among adolescents appeared to be the primary driver of change.  

The findings were published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics on June 18.

“Dietary supplements are not required to go through the same FDA regulations and approval process as prescription drugs. As a result, we know very little about their safety and effectiveness, especially in children,” said lead author Dima Qato, an assistant professor at the UIC College of Pharmacy.

She added certain dietary supplements have been linked to adverse drug events and may require further research. For example, some experts have suggested certain calcium supplements might be linked to an increased cardiovascular risk.

The National Institutes of Health website noted dietary supplements, including herbal products, can create unwanted side effects in children especially when they interact with other products or medications.

“We simply do not know if there are any benefits to children that outweigh the potential harms, and this study suggests supplement use is widespread and therefore an important, yet often ignored, public health issue,” Qato said.

The researchers analyzed six cycles of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2003-2004 through 2013-2014. When answering a dietary questionnaire, participants indicated whether they had used a supplement within the last 30 days. 

If so, the interviewers were shown containers of the supplements. Each one was classified as a nutritional product (which primarily contained vitamins or minerals) or an alternative medicine and further classified by their use.

Alternative medicines like herbal products and nutraceuticals doubled in use among children since 2003. An increase in the use of Omega-3 fatty acids and melatonin among the age group of 13 to 18 may have been the primary driver of the change, the researchers added.

The analysis also revealed how patterns of use among adolescents differentiated by gender. Teenage girls were likely to use Vitamin B products and folic acid which are typically promoted as a treatment for depression. Among boys, bodybuilding supplements were popular, as were the use of Omega-3 fatty acids, which are promoted as providers of cognitive benefits.

Qato pointed out adolescents may be using supplements to treat side effects from prescription medications. The increase in the use of melatonin (marketed for its sleep benefits) may be linked to the increase in the use of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder medications since the latter has been linked to sleep problems among children.

“Parents should be aware of the dangers, especially as many may be purchasing the supplements for their children. Health care providers working with children, especially pediatricians and pharmacists, should also take note of the prevalence of supplement use in this age group and ask patients and parents about such use regularly,” she said.