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Charlotte doctor: Over-the-counter supplements linked to liver failure, death

From weight loss to improved sleep, people take supplements for just about everything. But they can be dangerous and could lead to death.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It's no secret that supplements are a huge industry; we're talking $50 billion last year, and you can buy them just about anywhere. 

People take supplements for a variety of reasons: to lose weight, to get a better night's sleep, or to make up for nutrients they don't get in their diet. If you can name it, there's a pill for it. 

But supplements can be dangerous and could even lead to liver failure and death. You can buy these pills anywhere, including online or at your local grocery store, but the supplement industry is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. 

Atrium Health's Mark Russo, MD, says he treats patients all the time who have gone in for liver problems after taking supplements. He says there's a direct link between supplement use and liver failure. His advice: take them at your own risk. 

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"There is, and it's usually not one person that develops the problem," Dr. Russo said. "For example, many of these cases it's 50 or 100 cases throughout the world, and the only identifiable factor is that specific supplement."

According to the FDA, the number of cases goes up each year. 

"People look for shortcuts and sometimes those shortcuts can cause them a serious problem or even their lives," said Dr. Russo. 

But the FDA doesn't regulate supplements. Instead, it's up to the companies that distribute supplements to make sure their own products are safe. 

"In general, when patients call me and ask, 'can I take supplement X,' I say take it at your own risk," said Dr. Russo. 

He points out that just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe, and he recommends always checking with your own doctor before taking anything. At the very least, you can check out Livertox, a website with tons of information on supplements and any issues related to them.