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Dietary Supplements

Stateman Journal Living Well - Feb 2015

Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements are rising in popularity in the United States. Supplement sales grew 7.5% in 2013, putting them over $34 billion in revenue for that year, and projected sales indicate the growth will continue. But are dietary supplements all they're cracked up to be?

The answer isn't a simple "yes" or "no." There are thousands of supplements available on the market, and they are not all created equal.

The supplement industry is largely unregulated. There is no requirement for supplement companies to get their products approved by the FDA before they go on the market, though there are safety guidelines in place for companies to follow as they develop their formulas. The fact is, these companies can use the tiniest amount of active ingredients, then add a bunch of filler material, and still sell the supplements for $90 per bottle, as long as they conform to the safety standards set forth by the FDA.

What do health officials say?

Health professionals would prefer we get our nutrients from food rather than supplements. There are certain exceptions and situations which sometimes require additional nutrients:

  • Pregnancy
  • Certain illnesses
  • The elderly, or young children who sometimes need additional nutrients than what they get in their diets
  • Geographical location (for instance, Vitamin D for areas with limited sunshine)

While some supplements can be beneficial to your health, others can involve serious risks when taken incorrectly, in wrong doses or in combination with other medications you may be taking. You should always discuss with your doctor before starting a supplement regimen.

Do supplements really help?

In instances such as the ones described above, and with guidance from a physician, supplements have been shown to improve health—such as iron supplements sometimes given during pregnancy to prevent anemia.

Many of the supplements on the market today, however, make wild claims about helping you build muscle or lose weight. Anytime a supplement promises something that seems too good to be true, be cautious. In general, the fewer ingredients listed on the bottle, the more genuine the supplement is likely to be.

Which supplements are necessary for a healthy life?

Unless you have a particular illnss, a nutritional/hereditary problem, or are required by a doctor to take a supplement, NONE of them are required.

Will dietary supplements help with my health problems?

Unlike medications, supplements are not intented to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases. That means supplements should not make claims, such as "reduces arthritic pain" or "treat heart disease." Claims like these can only legitimately be made for medications, not dietary supplements.

They may not help, but they can't hurt…right?

Although many of supplements are a waste of time, there are situations in which taking supplements can be harmful to your health. Some supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects in the body. This could make them unsafe in some situations. For example, the following actions could lead to harmful—even life-threatening—consequences.

  • Using supplements with medications (whether prescription or over-the-counter)
  • Substituting supplements for prescription medications
  • Taking too much of some supplements, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, or iron
  • Some supplements can have undesired effects before, during, and after surgery—be sure to inform your health-care providers, including your pharmacist, about any supplements you are taking

How to be a smart supplement shopper:

  • Watch out for false statements, such as "A quick and effective cure-all," "Can treat or cure diseases," or "Totally safe/No side effects"
  • Be aware that the term natural doesn't always mean safe
  • When researching supplements on the web, visit the sites of respected organizations, rather that performing a blind search
  • Ask your healthcare provider for help in distinguishing between reliable and questionable information
  • Always remember—safety first!

Before deciding to begin a supplement regimen, see your healthcare provider or a registered dietician. They can help you achieve a balance between the foods and nutrients you personally need.

Rebekka Eckis, RN
Santiam Hospital