Should You Take Dietary Supplements?

A Look at Vitamins, Minerals,
Botanicals and More

When you
reach for that bottle of vitamin C or fish oil pills, you might wonder how well
they’ll work and if they’re safe. The first thing to ask yourself is whether
you need them in the first place.

More than
half of all Americans take one or more dietary supplements daily or on
occasion. Supplements are available without a prescription and usually come in
pill, powder or liquid form. Common supplements include vitamins, minerals and
herbal products, also known as botanicals.

People take
these supplements to make sure they get enough essential nutrients and to
maintain or improve their health. But not everyone needs to take supplements.

possible to get all of the nutrients you need by eating a variety of healthy
foods, so you don’t have to take one,” says Carol Haggans, a registered
dietitian and consultant to NIH. “But supplements can be useful for filling in
gaps in your diet.”

supplements may have side effects, especially if taken before surgery or with
other medicines. Supplements can also cause problems if you have certain health
conditions. And the effects of many supplements haven’t been tested in
children, pregnant women and other groups. So talk with your health care
provider if you’re thinking about taking dietary supplements.

“You should
discuss with your doctor what supplements you’re taking so your care can be
integrated and managed,” advises Dr. Craig Hopp, an expert in botanicals
research at NIH.

supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as
foods, not as drugs. The label may claim certain health benefits. But unlike
medicines, supplements can’t claim to cure, treat or prevent a disease.

little evidence that any supplement can reverse the course of any chronic
disease,” says Hopp. “Don’t take supplements with that expectation.”

does suggest that some supplements can enhance health in different ways. The
most popular nutrient supplements are multivitamins, calcium and vitamins B, C
and D. Calcium supports bone health, and vitamin D helps the body absorb
calcium. Vitamins C and E are antioxidants—molecules that prevent cell damage
and help to maintain health.

Women need
iron during pregnancy, and breastfed infants need vitamin D. Folic acid—400
micrograms daily, whether from supplements or fortified food—is important for
all women of childbearing age.

Vitamin B12
keeps nerve and blood cells healthy. “Vitamin B12 mostly comes from meat, fish
and dairy foods, so vegans may consider taking a supplement to be sure to get
enough of it,” Haggans says.

suggests that fish oil can promote heart health. Of the supplements not derived
from vitamins and minerals, Hopp says, “fish oil probably has the most
scientific evidence to support its use.”

effects of supplements

The health
effects of some other common supplements need more study. These include
glucosamine (for joint pain) and herbal supplements such as echinacea (immune
health) and flaxseed oil (digestion).

supplements have mild effects with few risks. But use caution. Vitamin K, for
example, will reduce the ability of blood thinners to work. Ginkgo can increase
blood thinning. The herb St. John’s wort is sometimes used to ease depression,
anxiety or nerve pain, but it can also speed the breakdown of many drugs—such
as antidepressants and birth control pills—and make them less effective.

Just because
a supplement is promoted as “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. The
herbs comfrey and kava, for example, can seriously damage the liver.

important to know the chemical makeup, how it’s prepared, and how it works in
the body—especially for herbs, but also for nutrients,” says Haggans. “Talk to
a health care provider for advice on whether you need a supplement in the first
place, the dose and possible interactions with medicine you’re already taking.”

For vitamins and minerals, check the % Daily Value (DV) for each nutrient to make sure you’re
not getting too much. “It’s important to consider the DV and upper limit,” says
Haggans. Too much of certain supplements can be harmful.

still have much to learn even about common vitamins. One recent study found
unexpected evidence about vitamin E. Earlier research suggested that men who
took vitamin E supplements might have a lower risk of developing prostate
cancer. “But much to our surprise, a large NIH-funded clinical trial of more
than 29,000 men found that taking supplements of vitamin E actually raised—not
reduced—their risk of this disease,” says Dr. Paul M. Coates, director of NIH’s
Office of Dietary Supplements. That’s why it’s important to conduct clinical
studies of supplements to confirm their effects.

supplements are regulated as foods, not as drugs, the FDA doesn’t evaluate the
quality of supplements or assess their effects on the body. If a product is
found to be unsafe after it reaches the market, the FDA can restrict or ban its

are also responsible for the product’s purity, and they must accurately list
ingredients and their amounts. But there’s no regulatory agency that makes sure
that labels match what’s in the bottles. You risk getting less, or sometimes
more, of the listed ingredients. All of the ingredients may not even be listed.

A few
independent organizations conduct quality tests of supplements and offer seals
of approval. This doesn’t guarantee the product works or is safe; it just
assures the product was properly made and contains the listed ingredients.

sold nationally in the stores and online where you usually shop should be
fine,” Coates says. “According to the FDA, supplement products most likely to
be contaminated with pharmaceutical ingredients are herbal remedies promoted
for weight loss and for sexual or athletic performance enhancement.”

To make it
easy to find reliable information, NIH has fact sheets on dietary supplements
at NIH also recently launched an online
Dietary Supplement Label Database at This free database
lets you look up the ingredients of thousands of dietary supplements. It
includes information from the label on dosage, health claims and cautions.

For more
personalized, on-the-go information about dietary supplements, check out NIH’s
free updated app for your smart phone or tablet: My
Dietary Supplements

The MyDS
provides the
latest supplement information and lets you keep track of the vitamins,
minerals, herbs and other products you take. You can even keep track of
supplements taken by your parents, spouse or children.

 “Deciding whether to take dietary supplements
and which ones to take is a serious matter,” says Coates. “Learn about their
potential benefits and any risks they may pose first. Speak to your health care
providers about products of interest and decide together what might be best for
you to take, if anything, for your overall health.”

(Note – This news is not a medical consultation in any
case.You can not make any decision based on this news story. Do not become a
doctor yourself, consult a qualified doctor.)

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