The dark side of supplementation. Are dietary supplements harmful?

Supplements are an integral part of an athlete’s diet. They support building sports form, regeneration and adaptation of the body to heavy training loads. However, not everyone realizes that supplements are not drugs. Dietary supplements are not subject to the same safety requirements as medicines. Therefore, they are not equally safe.

Consuming excessive amounts of supplements and reaching for any product advertising itself as supporting sports performance and health is not a good thing to do. Firstly, we do not always need it, secondly, it does not always work as the manufacturer promises. In this article I will present in detail the dark side of supplementation and I will explain how to choose products wisely so that they help, not harm.

Fashion for supplements

Fast pace of life, rush, lack of exercise, sedentary work, stimulants and an inappropriate, poorly balanced diet cause many people to look for other ways to meet the body’s need for vitamins and minerals. As a result, believing the promises of producers, blindly buys significant amounts of preparations containing vitamins, minerals and other compounds of natural origin.

Please remember that supplements are complementary preparations. Even tons of supplements cannot replace a well-balanced diet tailored to the body’s needs. And even vice versa, they can harm us.

The supplement is not a medicine

According to the definition contained in the Food and Nutrition Safety Act, dietary supplements are food products intended to supplement the normal diet. They are a concentrated source of vitamins, minerals or other substances that have a nutritional (or other physiological) effect. Supplements do not have the properties of a medicinal product within the meaning of pharmaceutical law. The purpose of dietary supplements, as their name suggests, is not to treat or prevent diseases, but to supplement the missing nutrients in the body. However, these types of preparations should not be the main source of vitamins or minerals, because their abuse may lead to unpleasant health consequences.

The dark side of supplementation. Threats.

Not everyone is aware that excessive consumption of vitamins and minerals may cause side effects. This happens when their use is not justified from a nutritional point of view. Additionally, unfortunately, the dangers related to the chemical composition of supplemented substances are still rarely discussed. This topic is described in detail later in the text.

Examples of the effects of an overdose of ingredients contained in supplements:

  1. Excess vitamin A and copper can cause liver damage.
  2. Excess iron in the body leads to hemochromatosis. Excess iron is deposited in tissues, especially the pancreas, liver, joints and heart, leading to damage to these organs.
  3. Although calcium is an important macroelement for athletes, large doses of it may promote atherosclerosis and diseases related to the circulatory system. Its excess also causes the formation of kidney stones and reduced absorption of zinc and iron.

Moreover, an overdose of vitamins and minerals very often occurs as a result of excessive use of vitamin preparations in the form of effervescent tablets. These types of products are treated as an easy-to-consume drink, especially in tourist conditions. They are taken multiple times a day as an addition to water. However, it should be noted that the dose of nutrients contained in one tablet should be taken no more than once a day.

Drug-supplement interactions

Another danger resulting from the inappropriate use of dietary supplements is the numerous interactions between drugs and nutrients. For this reason, people undergoing chronic treatment should be especially careful when using supplements.

Contamination of supplements

As already mentioned, dietary supplements have the status of food and are subject to regulations specified in food law (detailed information on this subject can be found on the website of the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate).

However, medicines are subject to very restrictive pharmaceutical law and control by the Medicines Registration Office and the Chief Pharmaceutical Inspector. Before any drug is introduced to the market, its effectiveness and safety must be proven. Medicines are also subject to constant quality control after being placed on the market.

Meanwhile, introducing a new supplement to the market only requires informing the Chief Sanitary Inspector of this intention. The manufacturer must provide information regarding, among others: product labeling and its quantitative and qualitative composition. Documentation confirming quality and declared effects are not required. This situation often enables the sale of low-quality products. Control of supplements already available on the market is also limited. As a result, in addition to safe supplements that fulfill their purpose, we may encounter products containing prohibited and harmful ingredients or preparations with a composition different from that declared on the label. And here it appears the dark side of supplementation.

For this reason, you should avoid using supplements from unreliable sources, especially those purchased online or manufactured by companies with a low reputation. If you do take supplements, it is best to buy such products at a pharmacy, where you can count on the advice of a pharmacist. Some brands producing supplements also have certificates confirming the purity and quality of the preparations sold. It’s worth paying attention to them.

Hepatoxicity of supplements

As already mentioned, herbs and dietary supplements are not always safe. They may cause side effects, including liver damage. It is estimated that the incidence of hepatotoxicity associated with excessive use of supplements of unknown origin ranges from 2% to 16% of all identified cases of liver damage.

With regard to the hematotoxicity of supplements, we can distinguish two reasons:

  1. Herb-induced liver damage.

There are many herbal dietary supplements on the market advertised as “healing”, “supporting treatment”, “improving” body functions, “removing toxins”, etc. Slimming products are also a special group.

Meanwhile, large doses of herbal substances can lead to liver damage. A perfect example is green tea. Although green tea infusion is widely consumed and generally safe, green tea extracts have hepatotoxic effects. Cases of liver damage have been reported associated with the consumption of various green tea extracts.

  1. Liver damage caused by dietary supplements.

The unregulated legal system of the supplement market means that dietary supplements are mixtures of substances that are not always well-tested. There is a risk that they have hepatotoxic effects because they have non-standardized composition and doses. Different manufacturers may offer products with different compositions under the same dietary supplement name. Preparations may be contaminated with chemical toxins, biological agents (bacteria, fungi) and drugs. In addition, some preparations contain non-physiological (mega doses) vitamins and other biologically active substances, which poses a risk of interactions between the ingredients of the supplement.

The dark side of supplementation is that in the case of symptoms of liver damage in a person consuming dietary supplements, it is difficult to prove whether the disease was caused by the adverse effects of supplementation. It is even more difficult to determine which ingredient of such a supplement is responsible for the observed changes.

Athlete’s supplementation

For an athlete, physical exercise that intensifies energy metabolism processes creates an increased demand for nutrients. Endurance athletes are a group for whom it is recommended to supplement their diet with supplements. Minerals and vitamins are involved in most processes occurring in the body. The lack of individual vitamins in the body may lead to physiological disorders, which may affect sports fitness. The literature indicates many positive aspects of the use of dietary supplements by athletes.

How to choose supplements wisely.

Before making a decision on the use of vitamins and minerals, it is important to analyze your health condition and lifestyle. It is very individual and should be determined for a given person. It is best to consult a doctor or dietitian.

Dietary supplementation should be as effective as possible and aimed at providing those minerals that are deficient in the body or in the daily diet, e.g. in the case of elimination diets. So as to avoid side effects related to those presented in the article the dark side of supplementation.

To obtain information on what supplements are effective in supporting an athlete’s fitness, it is worth checking the guidelines of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is an institution subordinated to the Australian Sports Commission, and its classification is recognized as the most reliable list of sports supplements. It divides sports food and supplements into four groups in accordance with the current state of knowledge and scientific evidence.

The dark side of supplementation. Summary.

The supplements market is a dynamically developing branch of the pharmaceutical industry. Taking supplements is very much in vogue these days. This is also due to the huge influence of advertising and tempting promises made by producers, often unfulfilled.

All this blurs the line between the need to take supplements and using them without justification. The selection of dietary supplements should be carefully considered, targeted and safe.

When deciding to use dietary supplements, you should first of all use common sense and remember that the nutrients they contain will never replace a rational diet tailored to human needs. The body derives much more benefits from it than from its chemical equivalents.


  1. Mieszkowska, M., & Michota-Katulska, E. (2008). Dietary supplements – benefits and side effects. Occupational Safety: science and practice28-30.
  2. Gorol, P. Dietary supplements.
  3. Habior, A. (2012). Herbs and dietary supplements and the risk of liver damage. Clinical Gastroenterology. Progress and Standards, 4(2), 59-68.
  4. García-Cortés M, Robles-Díaz M, Ortega-Alonso A, Medina-Caliz I, Andrade RJ. Hepatotoxicity by Dietary Supplements: A Tabular Listing and Clinical Characteristics. Int J Mol Sci. 2016 Apr 9;17(4):537. doi: 10.3390/ijms17040537. PMID: 27070596; PMCID: PMC4848993.

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