Everyone in America seems to be popping supplements. But that doesn’t mean they are right for you.
Unregulated and often misunderstood, dietary supplements are not necessarily useful or safe, even if millions of Americans take them.
What to know before you buy
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t test dietary supplements as they do medications, so it’s important to use caution, says Bethany Thayer, director of the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, Michigan.
Independent labs can test a product’s advertised strength, quality and consistency, says Thayer, “but it doesn’t mean that it actually works.”
These labs don’t test actual health claims, says Thayer. And while the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements, it does require companies to meet certain standards before making health claims.
First, the claim must be based on significant scientific evidence linking the supplement’s main ingredient and a disease or health problem. Second, the manufacturer cannot claim that the supplement cures or treats any disease or condition.
Claims that sound too good to be true, probably are. Be especially wary of supplements that trumpet a “secret remedy” or “breakthrough.” Another red flag: advertising that there’s a shortage of the product or that you need to give a credit card number to get a “free” sample. These claims are dishonest and possible scams. It’s best to stick to supplements from brands you know that make claims backed by science.
Don’t chase trends
When the results of a scientific study suggest benefits for a certain food or substance, it often booms in popularity. But the results of a single study, especially one with only a few patients, rarely proves anything. A trendy supplement can stimulate interest, especially when it boasts beauty benefits or pain relief. But the benefits rarely live up to the hype. All claims should be approached with healthy skepticism.
If you want to try the latest supplements, ask your doctor or pharmacist first. They can help you evaluate the product’s claims and decide if it is a safe choice.
When you might need them
Despite questionable claims, some supplements offer real benefits. For instance, they can conveniently meet the daily value of nutrients lacking in your diet, especially for those with dietary restrictions, Thayer says. When you limit your intake of certain food groups – whether by choice or for health reasons – supplements can help fill the nutritional gaps.
For example, vegans often have trouble getting sufficient calcium, iron and zinc. Those with dairy allergies might not get enough calcium and vitamin D. For these people, a supplement can be the easiest way to make up deficiencies.
You can overdo it
Many people believe that because supplements are “natural,” they are inherently safe. But how much you take is important.
“If you take too much zinc, it can interfere with iron absorption,” says Thayer. “And iron can damage your liver if you get too much.”
It’s a good idea to research supplement side effects using a credible source such as the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements
. You also should talk to your doctor or pharmacist about interactions with any medications you already take. Also, whenever you visit the doctor, mention any supplements you take so he or she can help you avoid harmful interactions.
Taking a multivitamin doesn’t mean you don’t need a healthy diet and lifestyle. Supplements are meant to support a healthy lifestyle, not replace it.
Using a multivitamin and mineral supplement doesn’t replace good eating habits, says Thayer. Foods contain thousands of phytochemicals that you simply can’t get from a pill.
What’s more, there are much more pleasant ways to get the nutrients you need. One orange, for example, offers you a full day’s requirement for vitamin C, says Thayer.
Fish oil supplements
Fish oil supplements are the nonvitamin and nonmineral natural product most often taken by both adults and children, according to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey.
Interactions with pharmaceuticals
If you are taking a prescription drug, it’s especially important to work with a physician, pharmacist or dietician when it comes to supplements, notes Thayer. “If a supplement is strong enough to help, it’s also strong enough to hurt.”
Combining drugs and supplements can cause side effects ranging from unpleasant to harmful. In some cases, they can even reduce the effectiveness of a medication. The popular supplement St. John’s wort, for example, can interfere with prescription antidepressants and some blood thinners.