Have all of your friends ever been obsessed with a TV show you've never seen? When you hang out, they laugh about the most recent episode, quote their favorite characters, and compare theories about the season finale—and you just sit there.
That's how I felt whenever my friends talked about Wellness Formula, a supplement made by a company called Source Naturals. It claims to "support the immune system when under physical stress" through a "powerful combination of herbs, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals formulated to boost your well-being." My friends (and I'm hoping I can still call them that after this article!), swear by it—and to me, it sounds like bullshit.
Nonetheless, about a week ago, I woke up on a Sunday morning with a sore throat, and my friends had that look in their eyes—the Wellness Formula look. "That stuff is just a placebo," I told them. They disagreed. "It's not approved by the FDA," I said. They were unfazed. "There's no research to say it works at all." Nothing.
After a day of protesting, I gave in. I'm not proud, but I did. What's the worst that could happen? I thought.
I took six capsules after dinner. (Yes, you must take six capsules. Six capsules every three hours.) Everything was fine for the next hour or so, but around 9 o'clock, when I was ready to get into bed, my heart started racing. I was lying in bed, exhausted but unable to sleep. I was sweating. My stomach was in knots. This is it, I thought, my tragic end is going to be a Monday morning headline on the very website that employs me: "Girl, 23, Dies Alone in Bed From…Vitamins"
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Then, I got up, rushed to the bathroom, and vomited. Ah yes, my preferred way to spend a Sunday evening. Also, as if I hadn't already felt enough of Wellness Formula's wrath, the vomit was acidic. So much so that it burned my throat, making it painful to swallow for the next 24 hours—and giving me an even worse sore throat than the one I was trying to get rid of. After I threw up, I felt 90% better. Wellness Formula couldn't give me the other 10%. She's ruthless.
The next morning, I did what anyone would do: I bitched to my coworkers about what happened, and, because we're health editors, here we are, in the middle of this article on what's really in these supplements—and if they're dangerous at all.
See, as a health journalist, I'm skeptical of pretty much anything, especially vitamins and supplements. Why? Because I know the Food and Drug Administration only inspects a small percentage of the supplements sold in the US every year. That lack of regulation opens the door for many supplements to falsely claim specific health benefits, since their claims don’t have to be backed up by research.
I wasn't able to find any clinical trials to prove Wellness Formula's specific claims, and Source Naturals didn't respond to a request for comment. There's even a disclaimer on the company's website that says, "The statements made in this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration," which aligns with the FDA's stance that it is "not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed."
Still, my friends worship Wellness Formula. When one sneezes or coughs or gets a paper cut (OK fine, I'm being dramatic with that last one), another will suddenly whip around, their palm extended flat holding six capsules of Wellness Formula. They truly believe that if you take the supplement when you first feel sick, you can dodge a full-blown illness.
So, what I needed to know (and why I wanted to write this article): Can these supplements actually help you avoid getting sick? Or is my experience common, and can they actually make you feel sick?
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It turns out, these 'Wellness' supplements have way too much…wellness
At first, I thought there was no way something billed as "natural" and "healthy" could make me ill, but Beth Kitchin, PhD, assistant professor of nutrition studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, tells me it's entirely possible. "You got crazy high amounts of vitamin C," she says. "Which can cause stomach cramping, diarrhea, and nausea." Interesting.
About Wellness Formula's vitamin C content: Six capsules contain 1,275 mg of vitamin C. Meanwhile, the recommended daily allowance for vitamin C for adults is 75 to 90 mg per day, and the tolerable upper intake level, or the "maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects," is 2,000 mg a day, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
While one dose puts you well above the recommended daily allowance, it keeps you just under the maximum of 2,000 mg a day. A second dose, however, puts you at 2,550 mg—or 128% of the upper intake level. Three doses puts you at 191%, and, well, you get the idea.
But wait, there's more. The amount of zinc can also exceed the upper limit, Kitchin says, which may have contributed to the nausea and vomiting. (Oh right, the vomiting. How could I forget?) The recommended dietary allowance for zinc is 8 to 11 mg per day, and the tolerable upper intake level is 40 mg, according to NIH. Just one dose of Wellness Formula has 23 mg of zinc, meaning after two doses, you're at 115% of the upper intake level.
Cynthia Sass, RD, Health contributing nutrition editor, also points out that some of the ingredients "can interact with certain medications, or existing medical conditions." For example, echinacea, an herb, has been known to exacerbate autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, she says.
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Sorry, but anecdotal evidence just doesn't cut it
In all fairness, Sass says that many of the ingredients in Wellness Formula, like vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin D, are known to support immunity (again, in amounts that don't exceed the upper intake level). But both Sass and Kitchin point out that it's simply impossible to know how the supplement will affect the immune system without clinical trials. "This is how we know, for example, that supplemental vitamin C can’t cure a cold, but that zinc lozenges may reduce the duration of cold," Sass says.
Despite this lack of scientific evidence, my friends have been unswayed: "Well, I can give you anecdotal evidence that it works for me," one said—to which I say, Hello, placebo effect. Kitchin agrees: "Someone can tell you that it made them feel better, but how do they know that they wouldn’t have felt better without the supplement? They don’t. That’s why we do research."
Overall, neither Kitchin nor Sass say they'd recommend this supplement to their clients. Sass even went a step further about supplements and vitamins in general, saying she wouldn't blindly prescribe anyone any specific supplement without assessing "a client’s personal medical history, medications, and any other supplements they’re taking" first. Huh.
That, I realized, is where I went wrong. If you take anything away from this article, it should be to always consult a professional before taking something—even a supplement. Not your friends who are entranced by a supplement's too-good-to-be-true benefits; a g'damn professional, like Sass. "Meet with a registered dietitian who can sit down with you and go over each supplement to determine if it’s appropriate, and if so, the proper dose, form, and how long you should take it," she advises.
Another tip: Kitchin says to look for a supplement with US Pharmacopeia (USP) or NSF International (NSF) logos, to be sure that it's free of contaminants and actually has in it what it says it does. Keep in mind, though, these logos do not mean that the product is effective—just that the ingredients list isn't falsified. (FYI: Wellness Formula does not have USP or NSF logos.)
As for my friends, they're not going to stop taking Wellness Formula, and they've told me as such. They're in too deep—if there's even the slightest chance they won't have to deal with the common cold this winter like the rest of us, they're down to take anything. Me? I'll stick to washing my hands and steering clear of anyone not covering their mouth during a sneeze, thankyouverymuch.
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