Do you take one or more nutritional supplements? If so, you’re in good company. A survey by the Council for Response Nutrition revealed that 68% of adults take some form of supplement and half of all adults take an herb or nutritional supplement on a regular basis. We’re a society that enjoys the extra reassurance that taking a supplement offers – but are we educating ourselves enough about them beforehand?
Many people who take supplements are heavily influenced by marketing materials and don’t take the time to read scientific research or explore the company that makes it. They might see a commercial on television or an ad online that piques their interest and they give it a try. But, you should treat supplements no differently than medications. Always know why you’re taking one, the side effects, and, most importantly, that it’s safe. Here are five facts about supplements you should be aware of before popping your next pill or gel cap.
Supplements Can Interact with Medications
Since many supplements contain components we get through diet, you might assume the risk of medication interactions is small. However, supplements DO interact with medications, other supplements, and even the food you eat. Although rare, there have been cases of liver and kidney failure related to supplement use.
How can you protect yourself? If you take a supplement, google the Medscape Drug Interaction Checker and type in the name of any herbs or supplement you’re taking. This handy resource will give you information about the supplement and alert you to potential interactions. Also, let your physician know about any supplements you’re on, even multivitamins. Many people fail to tell their healthcare provider about the vitamins and supplements they have hiding in their medicine cabinet and they’re doing themselves an injustice.
Supplements Aren’t Regulated by the FDA
Pharmaceutical medications go through several phases of testing to ensure their safety and effectiveness. Even then, unforeseen adverse reactions show up after the drug is released to market. It’s very different for supplements, as they’re considered food, not drugs. As such, the FDA doesn’t require safety testing before supplements enter the market. So, the fish oil capsule or the probiotic you pick up at the supermarket may have undergone no testing at all. It’s only after the FDA gets wind of adverse reactions that they step in and monitor or remove a product. What’s more, many of the components in supplements and multivitamins are imported from other countries, particularly China where the safety standards are different.
Supplements May Contain Unexpected Ingredients
What’s in your supplements – and is there a way to know? Consumer Labs is an independent, third-party testing firm that analyzes supplements to see if they contain what’s on the label and verifies their purity. Unfortunately, they frequently discover supplements tainted with contaminants, including heavy metals, and ingredients that aren’t listed on the label. Some of the worst offenders are weight loss, male enhancement, and bodybuilding supplements. Even worse, independent studies have found steroids in bodybuilding supplements and prescription weight loss medications in herbal weight loss supplements. With supplements, you sometimes get more than you pay for!
Supplements May Not Contain What They Say They Do
Contamination of supplements is one issue, but there’s no guarantee a supplement contains what it says on the label either. The attorney general of New York asked investigators to analyze a variety of supplements from leading manufacturers. They used a special technique called DNA barcoding to determine the contents and purity of the products. The analysis showed almost 80% didn’t contain what was on the label and some contained fillers and contaminants. Some of the contaminants included houseplants, wheat, and rice. What’s concerning is wheat and plant allergies are common and people aren’t aware that they’re being exposed through the supplements they take. Shockingly, 5 out of 24 herbal products investigators tested contained DNA that was not consistent with what was on the label. These are supplements routinely sold at Target, Walmart, and GNC. That’s a scary indictment of the supplement industry!
The Testimonials and Reviews May Have Been Paid For
When you’re thinking about buying a supplement, what do you do next? Do you head over to Amazon and read the latest reviews? Some less than reputable supplement vendors pay people to leave positive reviews about their products. One tip-off is if you see a large number of reviews left over a short time period. Also, fake reviews tend to be short and have fewer details than a legitimate review from a customer who used the product. Don’t assume a product must be of high quality because you read good reviews, particularly when you don’t know whether the reviewers were prompted or paid.
More Isn’t Necessarily Better
There’s the perception that if something does something good for your body, more is better. However, getting supplemental amounts of some vitamins and minerals can create imbalances. For example, taking large doses of a mineral supplement, like magnesium, reduces absorption of other minerals with a similar chemical structure, like iron, copper, and zinc. High doses of vitamin A is linked with osteoporosis and taking iron as a supplement when you aren’t low is linked with a higher risk of heart disease, based on some studies. Iron is an antioxidant at low doses but becomes a tissue-damaging prooxidant at high levels. When possible, it’s best to get nutrients from nutrient-dense foods as you get them in a balanced manner. Plus, you get some of the thousands of plant-based components that you can’t pack into a pill.
The Bottom Line
Hopefully, you’re a little supplement wiser now and will do your own research before taking one. When possible, get your vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals from food as that’s the form your body uses best – and it tastes better too!
The Council for Responsible Nutrition. “New Survey Reveals High Percentage of U.S. Population Take Dietary Supplements—and with High Confidence”
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. “Herb-Drug Interactions”
Time.com. “8 Things You Don’t Know About Supplements”
The Washington Post. “GNC, Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens accused of selling adulterated ‘herbals’”
Thrillist. “Common Myths You Shouldn’t Believe about Vitamins and Supplements”
US Food and Drug Administration. “How does FDA decide when a drug is not safe enough to stay on the market?”
National Institutes of Health. “National Supplement Label Database”
How supplement savvy are you? Here are six facts you should know about supplements that could save your health.