It's often assumed that herbal and botanical dietary supplements are inherently safe, and the industry's overall safety record bears this out. But some products can still pose risks, especially when they interact with other products a consumer might be taking. And with all the various medications and supplements on the market, the combinations are endless.
Statistics show that over 170 million US adults take supplements, ranging from garden-variety vitamins to exotic herbal mixtures. In fact, nearly 25% of Americans report concurrently taking a prescription medication with a dietary supplement. But unlike medications, the FDA doesn’t review nutritional or dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they’re sold.
Using artificial intelligence to make searches more efficient
Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, says it is taking the legwork out of the daunting process of gleaning through possible interactions. Using its Semantic Scholar academic search engine, Supp.AI, the searchable database indexes 4,650 supplements and drugs from Abbokinase to Zytiga. The free tool offers research findings on more than 56,000 interactions from over the years.
According to the report, “More than half of US adults use dietary supplements. Supplements include vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and other herbal and animal products. Although the pharmacological effects of many supplement ingredients remain uncertain due to limited FDA regulation, there has been substantial documentation of adverse interactions between supplements and pharmaceutical drugs...However, these studies largely rely on manual curation of the literature, and are slow and expensive to produce and update. It is also difficult to aggregate their results, and researchers, clinicians, and consumers can lack appropriate and up-to-date information to make informed decisions about supplement use. Consumer-facing websites such as the NIH Office of Dietary Supplements or WebMD provide facts about some common supplements, but this information can be incomplete. Results from the latest studies may be lacking due to bottlenecks of manual curation by domain experts.”
AI2 aims to take that manual curation off experts’ shoulders by using its natural language processing system to absorb vast amounts of research to identify key words and results. When drugs or supplements are typed into Supp.AI, the search engine displays links to studies that address potential interactions that often can’t be found anywhere else.
“Both supplements and drugs are pharmacologic entities, with the distinction more attributable to marketing and social pressures rather than functional differences,” say the researchers in their paper describing AI2. “However, due to this somewhat arbitrary distinction, supplement entities are less well represented in databases of pharmaceutical entities, and less information is publicly available on their interactions. Our work is an attempt to close this gap.”
Talk to your doctor
Supp.AI doesn’t provide medical advice, it streamlines the process by simply pointing out publicly available research. Andrea Wong, Ph.D., senior vice president, scientific & regulatory affairs, Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), says you should always speak to your doctor:
“CRN views this new method as a positive tool to help healthcare providers give advice to their patients on potential supplement and drug interactions. While this tool also gives consumers additional access to research and information on potential supplement and drug interactions, CRN cautions that it cannot replace a patient’s conversation with their healthcare practitioner. Consumers should always maintain an open, active dialogue with their healthcare practitioner about the supplements they’re taking, especially those taking over-the counter or prescription drugs.”
The report concludes by saying, “This dataset and web interface can be leveraged by researchers, clinicians, and patients to increase understanding about supplement-related interactions. We hope to encourage additional research to improve the safety and benefits of dietary supplements for the healthcare consumer.”