January 2020

Reviewing Supplement Safety for Kids

Surveys suggest that more parents are giving supplements to kids. Is this trend safe? It’s a tricky question to answer because most research focuses on adults.

You probably get a lot of questions about fish oil supplements. Research shows that it might improve some symptoms of ADHD in kids. And there’s some evidence it might reduce hyperactivity in children with autism, but more research is needed to confirm it helps. If parents want to give it a shot, tell them that fish oil is possibly safe in kids when used appropriately, but it’s important to stick to USP-verified products to ensure that toxins like mercury are at acceptable levels. Some fish oil sources like cod contain more toxins than others. Also remind parents to limit how much fish kids eat to two ounces per week. Eating contaminated fish too often can lead to long-term complications such as learning disabilities.

Zinc is also commonly used for a variety of conditions, including ADHD and colds. Tell parents that while taking zinc might benefit kids with lower levels of zinc, the Western diet usually provides adequate amounts. Most research showing that zinc helps is from the Middle East, where zinc deficiency is more common. Even so, taking zinc shouldn’t cause any harm. But make sure daily zinc intake isn’t greater than the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL). Taking high doses can suppress the immune system and cause other side effects.

Whether their child is sick or having trouble sleeping in general, some parents might ask about melatonin. Before suggesting any sleep aids, make sure parents talk with their pediatrician about what might be causing sleeping problems. Simple adjustments to habits and behaviors might be the solution, whereas sleep aids might mask the real problem. Using any sleep aid long-term in otherwise healthy kids might also have unknown side effects. If a sleep aid is truly needed, tell parents that melatonin has been shown to help kids fall asleep and should be safe when used short-term. But make sure to limit doses to 3 mg daily for children and infants 6 months and older, and 5 mg daily for teens. Also, caution parents that there’s some evidence that taking melatonin long-term might delay puberty, so it should only be used when medically necessary.

Parents might also ask about ginkgo. Some early research suggests that it might help prevent migraines in kids. But it’s not clear if it helps ADHD, and it doesn’t seem to improve autism symptoms. There aren’t any major safety concerns for ginkgo leaf extract, but make sure parents know that ginkgo seeds are dangerous and can be toxic in kids. And ginkgo supplements in general are commonly adulterated.

Remind parents that most supplements haven’t been thoroughly tested for safety in kids. Even products that are specifically marketed for use in kids might not have good supporting safety data. Counsel parents to be cautious when purchasing supplements for their children, and to discuss these products with their pediatrician. Also make sure to check the safety section of our monographs. When there is safety data for kids, we include it in a special subsection for Children.

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The information in this brief report is intended for informational purposes only, and is meant to help users better understand health concerns. This information should not be interpreted as specific medical advice. Users should consult with a qualified healthcare provider for specific questions regarding therapies, diagnosis and/or health conditions, prior to making therapeutic decisions. Copyright © 2024 NatMed. Commercial distribution or reproduction prohibited. NatMed is the leading provider of high-quality, evidence-based, clinically-relevant information on natural medicine, dietary supplements, herbs, vitamins, minerals, functional foods, diets, complementary practices, CAM modalities, exercises and medical conditions. Monograph sections include interactions with herbs, drugs, foods and labs, contraindications, depletions, dosing, toxicology, adverse effects, pregnancy and lactation data, synonyms, safety and effectiveness.