If you are considering taking supplements to improve your health and nutrition or have friends who are experiencing significant benefits from their supplements, you may have questions.
Here are some essential things to know before taking supplements.
- What are Supplements?
- How are Supplements Regulated?
- Risks of Supplements
- How to Take Supplements Safely
What are Supplements?
Dietary supplements are a broad category that includes vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanical extracts, amino acids, enzymes, and other ingredients. They may be pills or tablets, powders or liquids, gummies, or be included in drinks and snacks.
Part of the problem with supplements is that it’s such a broad category of healthy nutrients like vitamin D or less-proven ingredients to promote weight loss or brain function. For that reason, they can vary widely in their safety and health effects.
Many supplements have ingredients with proven health benefits. Healthcare professionals may recommend specific supplements for certain health conditions (like a calcium supplement, for example).
Because such a wide range of ingredients can be labeled and sold as supplements, there can be a wide range of health benefits, but there are also some associated risks.
How are Supplements Regulated?
Unlike drugs and medicines, supplements are not regulated in the US. The US FDA does not test or approve supplements. This means that supplements can be sold without FDA testing for either safety or effectiveness.
Manufacturers are supposed to test all supplements and ingredients for safety, and notify the FDA if they are using a new component. Manufacturers are also responsible for ensuring that their products are high in quality and consistency so that the final product itself (not just the ingredients) does not have harmful effects.
The FDA can take supplements off the market if they have adverse health effects and penalize manufacturers for making false claims in their marketing and advertising.
But manufacturers can formulate new supplements, sell them without proving their safety, and make unproven claims about their benefits and health effects.
Because of the lack of regulation, consumers need to be cautious when taking supplements and be skeptical of any health benefits claims. It’s essential to be aware of the risks and be careful when taking new supplements.
Risks of Supplements
While many people think that the most significant risk of a supplement is that it won’t work as claimed or provide any health benefits, that’s not something to be very concerned about.
The fact is that many supplements contain potent ingredients that do affect our bodies and our health, and there may be unwanted adverse effects. Here are some of the most significant risks:
Risk of Overdose
Many healthful nutrients can be harmful in large amounts. For example, large amounts of vitamin A can cause bone damage and birth defects, and overdosing on iron can damage the liver and other organs.
Generally speaking, the US RDA for vitamins and minerals represents the recommended amount, not the minimum amount. There are risks associated with taking large amounts of proven, healthy nutrients.
Risk of Side Effects
A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that adverse effects from supplements cause 23,000 visits to the emergency room every year. Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, headache, dizziness, and elevated blood pressure.
Risks From Small-Print Ingredients or Ingredient Sources
Because supplements are unregulated, they may contain the primary ingredient on the label and stabilizers, fillers, preservatives, and other components, or come from unsafe sources or be mixed with unproven compounds.
For example, while blue-green algae is a proven source of essential nutrients, it may easily be contaminated with toxins, and some fish oil supplements are high in PCBs.
While the primary or active ingredient in a supplement may have proven health benefits, there may be additional ingredients that are less safe, or the components may have other unwanted compounds in them.
Risks of Medicine Interactions
Many supplements have a high chance of interacting with your medications, making them less effective or even harmful.
Supplements can interfere with how your body absorbs or metabolizes medications and can interfere with heart disease, depression and anxiety, HIV/AIDS, and immune function medications. Supplements can also alter the effectiveness of hormonal birth control.
Risks Due to Existing Health Conditions
Generally speaking, even when supplements are tested for safety, they have been tested on healthy adult males. Supplements may have unexpected effects when taken by pregnant women, children, or people with existing health conditions.
Supplements should always be avoided before, during, or after surgery to avoid affecting heart rate, blood pressure, or blood clotting ability.
How to Take Supplements Safely
Despite all these risks, many people still enjoy many benefits from taking supplements, and they can be taken safely. Here are the most important things to keep in mind:
The Best Nutrition is in Food
Healthy food contains complete nutrients in safe amounts. In fact, many common foods are enriched with additional nutrients (like minerals added to cereals or vitamin D added to milk), so you may be getting more nutrients than you expect.
Most doctors and nutritionists recommend that people focus on eating a healthy diet high in colorful fruits and vegetables and not worry about vitamin and mineral supplements.
Natural Does Not Mean Safe
Simply because an ingredient is “natural” or “organic” does not mean it’s healthy, safe, or effective. Natural ingredients like kava and ephedra can have very harmful effects.
Many natural substances found in plants are complex chemicals with a wide range of unpredictable consequences, while synthetic ingredients made in a laboratory are more consistent and predictable.
Be Skeptical About Marketing and Advertising
The supplements most frequently associated with health risks are supplements that claim to promote weight loss or muscle building. Read any health claims carefully, and be skeptical.
A typical supplement marketing technique is to cite scientific studies that show the efficacy of a specific nutrient (vitamin D, for example) and not show any evidence that their particular supplement actually works or has any health benefits.
Do Your Research
Carefully read the label and research any unknown or unwanted ingredients. When possible, research not just the ingredients in the supplement, but research where the ingredients come from and the manufacturer to ensure they perform quality testing.
Look for FDA-approved facilities and a track record of good product reviews. You may also want to refer to EU guidelines, which are more rigorous than US FDA standards.
Introduce Supplements Slowly
When taking a new supplement, introduce one supplement at a time and in low doses. Avoid mixing different supplements and medications all at once.
Talk With Your Doctor
It’s always a good idea to discuss supplements with your doctor, particularly if you have existing prescription medications and/or health conditions.
Supplements can improve your health, looks, mood, and energy levels. If you follow these guidelines and treat supplements with some caution and skepticism, you can also take them safely and enjoy their benefits while lowering your risks.
When in doubt, always talk with your physician before taking supplements, and report any harmful supplement effects to the FDA.
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