You’ve definitely seen the ads and recommendations for various pills, vitamins and supplements that tout weight loss, bodybuilding, better energy, better concentration, better sex! Entire aisles, websites and even stores are dedicated to selling you these products. All of these things sound great, but it’s important to know what you are putting in your body.
So lets start with the question: What exactly is a dietary or nutritional supplement?
Per the FDA “A dietary supplement is a product intended for ingestion that contains a “dietary ingredient” intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet. A “dietary ingredient” may be one, or any combination, of the following substances:
- a vitamin
- a mineral
- an herb or other botanical
- an amino acid
- a dietary substance for use by people to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake
- a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, or extract
Unlike drugs, supplements are not permitted to be marketed for the purpose of treating, diagnosing, preventing, or curing diseases. That means dietary supplements can’t legitimately claim that they “lower high cholesterol” or “treat diabetes.”
They come in a variety of forms: tablets, capsules, softgels, liquids and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars.
Who is responsible for the safety of the supplements?
It is important to realize that the FDA, who are the guys that regulate and monitor the safety and efficacy of prescription and over the counter drugs are not required to review dietary supplement products for safety or effectiveness before they are marketed. The FDA provides guidelines for manufacturing practices and labeling regulations though the regulations require less safety evidence. This puts the folks making and distributing the supplements responsible for making sure their products are safe before they are sold.
If a serious problem occurs, it is meant to be reported. Those that are deemed unsafe can eventually be taken off of the market, however this can often occur after consumers are harmed.
Are there benefits in taking supplements?
Some supplements can be beneficial in providing nutrients missing in your diet or that your body doesn’t process properly causing an insufficiency or deficiency. The aim for a supplement is to help provide adequate vital nutrients that your body needs for normal function. Some supplements may also reduce the risk of certain diseases.
Supplements are not meant to be used as replacements for eating a healthy and varied diet or in place of exercise. If you don’t have any medical problems, your best nutritional state will always be obtained through healthy eating and exercise.
What are the dangers?
When products are regulated, we know the risks and benefits. Dietary supplements are in the grey zone. Though supplements may seem safer than otc or prescription medications, many contain ingredients that can potentially cause similar complications. In certain situations these complications can harm your health and have even led to deaths.
It is important to be aware of the potential for interactions with any other medications (over the counter or prescription) you may take. Some can enhance or reduce the effects of a variety of medications, including birth control pills.
Some supplements can cause problems in certain circumstances, ie-increase the risk of bleeding or affect the way you respond to anesthetics during surgery.
Too much of a supplement can also cause harm, for example, too much of certain vitamins can lead to toxicity.
Combining supplements can be very dangerous. Each supplement can contain various unknown ingredients. People using any dietary supplements should do so with caution and under a medical provider’s close supervision
There are greater than 50,000 supplements sold in the United States, less than 1% have been studied closely enough to determine their common side effects. Most dietary supplements have not been tested for safety in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.
As of 2014, 20% of all reported drug induced liver injuries have been linked to dietary supplements. The highest risk products tend to be bodybuilding and weight loss supplements. Extracts and supplements that increase metabolism and help with “fat burning” or weight loss can harm the liver. A fairly recent example of this caused over 50 cases of acute liver failure, 2 liver transplantations and 1 death post exposure to a dietary supplement. Read more here.
So how can you taking supplements wisely?
- Be smart about choosing a supplement:
The FDA recommends to search for supplements on the Internet using noncommercial sites (e.g. NIH, FDA, USDA) rather than depending on information or marketing from the sellers.
- There is no such thing as a product that is “totally safe,” and that has “no side effects.” Anything that sounds too good to be true usually is.
- Take any supplements under the supervision of your healthcare provider in the same way you would take any other medication. You can discuss if the supplement you’re considering would be safe and beneficial for you.
- Learn about the supplements to avoid. Green tea extract is an example of a common supplement to avoid. See here for a list of supplements Consumer Reports recommends to avoid.
Anything I should know while I’m on any nutritional/dietary supplements?
- Most people falsely believe that supplements are natural so are safe and don’t have side effects. In addition there aren’t often listed warnings of potential side effects.
- It’s important to let any healthcare provider know what you are taking. Especially if being asked about any medications you are taking.
- Look out for any unusual signs or symptoms. Even something as simple as feeling extra fatigued, jittery or feel extra itchy can be a sign of a serious side effect. Have a look here for more information on alarm symptoms and where to report any issues or problems.
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