Heart supplements: Proceed with caution

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Consumer Reports

Popping vitamin, mineral, or other dietary supplements might seem like an easy way to boost heart health, but that’s usually not the case. A number of large studies over the past several years failed to find that supplements of folic acid and other B vitamins, as well as vitamins C and E, prevent heart attacks or strokes. In one study, in fact, vitamin E was linked to an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke.

One supplement—red yeast rice—can lower LDL (bad) cholesterol almost as effectively as certain statin drugs. But that’s because it can contain a naturally occurring substance essentially identical to the prescription drug lovastatin (Altoprev, Mevacor, and generic). Unfortunately, that means it poses the same risks, too, which can be considerable, especially if you’re not being monitored by a doctor.

Moreover, since heart supplements aren’t carefully regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, it’s often hard to know whether what’s on the label is really in the package. Indeed, a study in the Oct. 25, 2010, issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine found “striking” variability in the amount of the active ingredients in 12 red yeast rice supplements. The labels “all said 600 milligrams on the bottle,” said Ram Gordon, M.D., a cardiologist at the Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia and the lead author of the recent study. “The question is, 600 mg of what?” Our medical consultants say people should avoid all red yeast rice supplements.

The evidence for some other heart supplements—such as coenzyme Q-10, garlic and green tea—is often inconsistent or weak. And even those that are more likely to offer benefits can pose some risks, too, especially when taken with certain drugs. Even fish oil, which has good supporting evidence, probably shouldn’t be taken with high blood-pressure medication or blood-thinning drugs.

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