Our bodies depend on a steady supply of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients for good health throughout our lives. Yet it can be challenging to get all the essential nutrients we need from food alone.
While dietary supplements cannot take the place of healthy eating habits, they can provide adequate amounts of essential nutrients when used responsibly. In fact, nearly 3 in 5 Americans use supplements each month to benefit their health.
Dietary supplements can play a vital role in a healthy lifestyle, if you are a well-informed consumer. Here are some questions and answers on what you need to know to safely select and take dietary supplements.
What are dietary supplements?
Dietary supplements are products that contain vitamins, minerals, botanical or herbal ingredients, amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), and enzymes (complex proteins that speed up biochemical reactions). They are commonly sold in various forms, including tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids.
Dietary supplements are not medicines and they do not cure disease, but they are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Are dietary supplements safe to take?
Consumers should feel secure that dietary supplement manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the safety of their products, and must follow a number of standards meant to ensure quality in the manufacturing and labeling of their products.
If a serious problem associated with a supplement occurs, such as a side effect, manufacturers must report it to FDA as an adverse event. FDA can take dietary supplements off the market if they are found to be unsafe or if the claims on the products are false and misleading.
However, it is important to find out as much information as possible about a dietary supplement before taking it. While the internet can provide a great deal of helpful information, often times it is difficult to know whether the information is accurate or not. The basic rule of thumb to remember is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You can always speak to your healthcare provider or contact the manufacturer of the product directly if you have any questions.
Who benefits from dietary supplements?
People take dietary supplements for a number of reasons, including to:
- Maintain their general health
- Support mental and sports-related performance
- Provide immune system support
Yet certain individuals may need them especially, including:
- Women Who Are Pregnant or May Become Pregnant – Women who may get pregnant should consume 400 micrograms of folate on a daily basis, either from food or supplements, to safeguard against birth defects. Folate is a B vitamin, needed to produce genetic materials, including DNA. It’s available in prenatal vitamins that may also contain helpful levels of iron and calcium.
- Older Adults – As we age we may need certain vitamins and minerals more than younger people. These could include calcium and Vitamin D, which are important for bone strength, Vitamin B-6 that helps form red blood cells, and Vitamin B-12 that helps maintain nerves and red blood cells.
- People with Food Allergies or Restricted Diets – If you are vegan, have food allergies or an intolerance to lactose, or have difficulty digesting or absorbing nutrients, dietary supplements may provide you with important benefits.
Should I talk to my healthcare provider about dietary supplements?
Short answer – yes! While dietary supplements are available without needing a prescription from your healthcare provider, there are important reasons to loop them into the conversation.
At the top of the list: Dietary supplements may interact with prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines you are taking, so it’s important to check with an expert who gets the big picture. Your healthcare provider can help find the right supplement for you.
It’s also important to notify your healthcare provider of the dietary supplements you are taking when being treated for a health condition – such as heart problems or high blood pressure – or if you are pregnant or could become pregnant.
How can I learn more about the dietary supplement I’m taking?
A good place to start is the product label. The FDA requires all dietary supplements to identify certain information on their labeling, including an ingredient list and “Supplement Facts” label.
The “Supplement Facts” label includes a Daily Values (DV) table that tells you what percentage of your daily requirement is provided by each nutrient in the product. For instance, if the label says 80% DV for Vitamin C, that means a dosage provides about 80 percent of your daily requirement for Vitamin C. The numbers are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories, so view them as an estimate. The label will also show you the proper serving size, guidance you must take seriously.
The FDA recently mandated changes to the “Supplement Facts” label that all dietary supplement manufacturers must follow. These changes, which are designed to better provide you with the information needed to make informed choices about your health, include:
- New Daily Values (DVs) to reflect the latest nutrition science and changing American diet
- Vitamins A, D, and E will now be measured in milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg)
- Folic acid will be listed as folate and measured in micrograms (mcg) of dietary folate equivalents (DFEs)
- For products that contain sugar, you will now see the amount and % of DV.
For more information on these dietary supplement label changes, talk to your healthcare provider.
Sound like a lot to keep in mind? Maintaining a daily log can be a good way to stay on track. You can create an overall record of your medications and supplements – including how much to take of each product and when to use it – by downloading this form.
Are there any side effects to watch out for when taking dietary supplements?
If you take dietary supplements as directed, follow all guidelines, and consult with your doctor, the risks are low. Some side effects from dietary supplements include upset stomach, heartburn, gas, and bloating.
More serious adverse health events could happen if you do not adhere to instructions. Nausea, bleeding, headache, and liver damage are a partial list of the dangers that may arise with unsafe use.
Importantly, healthcare providers can provide guidance on whether a dietary supplement may interact with a medication you are taking.
Report a Problem. Tell your doctor of any issue you experience with a dietary supplement. The FDA asks that you also let them know if you experience a problem or illness from such a product.