Health supplements are vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals and other substances which are intended to supplement your normal diet. Supplements are generally used for a specific purpose, such as gaining or losing weight, adding muscle, or improving energy.
As their name suggests, health supplements are intended to supplement, not replace, a healthy, balanced diet. Supplements are also not intended to prevent, treat or cure disease. Manufacturers are not allowed to claim that their product will diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat or prevent a disease. Supplements should not be taken for any of those purposes.
In fact, it is advisable to use caution in purchasing and using health supplements. Unlike drugs:
- Supplements can be marketed without any proof that they are safe.
- Dietary supplements do not need approval from the FDA before they are marketed (except in the case of a new dietary ingredient.)
- Some ingredients in supplements can cause serious side effects. Consumer Reports suggests skipping the following 12 supplement ingredients: Aconite, Bitter organce, Chaparral, Colloidal Silver, Coltsfoot, Comfrey, Country mallow, Germanium, Greater celandine, Kava, Lobelia and Yohimbe.
- Supplements can be marketed without any proof that they will do what people think they will ("efficacy").
- Manufacturers do not have to make consumers aware of potential side effects or drug interactions.
- Quality of dietary supplements and herbal products is not regulated. Studies suggest that:
- A sizable percentage of herbal products are not what they are labeled to be
- Quality and actual content may vary from bottle to bottle
- The FDA must prove that a product is dangerous before it can require that it be withdrawn from the market. Supplements are generally only pulled from shelves after complaints of serious injury.
When purchasing a supplement, consumer advocates suggest looking for products which:
- Have the ingredients you are looking for. (You can find this information on the label.)
- Do not have an excess of extra ingredients.
- Are manufactured by a good quality company.
- Have a "USP" or "ConsumerLab" certification. While such a designation does not mean that the product is safe or effective, it does mean that Supplements with either of these verifications: meet standards of quality, purity and potency; are screened for harmful contaminants; are manufactured using safe, sanitary and well-controlled procedures. USP certification standards are set by the not-for-profit U.S. Pharmacopeia. To learn more about the mark and the organizati0n, see: www.uspverified.org . For information about the consumerlab certification, click here .
- Preferably are recommended by a trained professional.
Following are guidelines for taking a supplement based on recommendations are from Dr. Alan R. Gaby, a specialist in nutritional medicine and a past president of the American Holistic Medical Association.
- It is best to take multivatimins and fish oil with meals.
- This helps avoid stomach upset while taking multivitamins.
- The fats included in the average meal enhance the absorption of fish oil.
- If you take vitamin C, it is not advisable to take more than 500 mg of vitamin C in one dose. It may lead to diarrhea and/or stomach cramps. Instead, divide the dose over the course of a day.
- Buffered forms of vitamin C are less likely to cause stomach upset than unbuffered forms.
- Vitamin C is less likely to cause stomach upset or diarrhea if taken with food.
- Taking B vitamins at night can cause insomnia.
- Take Vitamin E with food. It requires the presence of fat for optimal absorption.
- Take calcium in the evening or before bed.
For information about what to do before starting to take a supplement, as well as information about supplement myths, see the other sections of this article.
- If you notice any new symptoms or side effects from taking a supplement, stop taking the product immediately. Contact your doctor (or at least your doctor's office) and report what happened.
- When you are asked what medications you take, be sure to include supplements, as well as vitamins and herbs. Survivorship A to Z provides a List of Medications form to help you keep track.