To Supplement or Not to Supplement: That is the Question

If you are taking a dietary supplement, you are not alone. According to the National Institute of Health, the majority of adults in the United States take one or more daily dietary supplements, including vitamins, minerals, and herbal remedies. Many of my clients ask me about whether or not they should take a supplement. Personally, I rarely recommend it, unless, of course, it is advised by the client’s physician. My reason is that the best source of nutrition comes from food and a healthy body requires adequate sleep and regular exercise.

Do you feel tired? Do you suffer from insomnia, constipation, acne, joint pain, skin conditions, gastrointestinal problems, cramps, hot flashes, irritability, weight gain, weight loss, hair loss, low muscle tone, poor eyesight, hyperactivity, athlete’s foot, an enlarged prostate, or a general feeling of “blah” (a medical term)? If you have any of the above symptoms, or any combination of them, there is a supplement on the market for you. What the average consumer may not be aware of, though, is that dietary supplements are products intended to supplement one’s diet (hence the term “supplement”) and not to cure or reverse one’s symptoms. The FDA regulations for supplements are thus dissimilar to those of prescription medications or over-the-counter medications. The FDA has very strict rules regarding medication approval, including requiring multiple clinical trials and FDA review and sanction prior to allowing marketing. The FDA does not, however, regulate dietary supplements. The companies producing supplements thus do not need to provide any evidence to the FDA that their product is safe and that the label’s claims are truthful. The company itself is responsible to ascertain that the product which they are selling is safe.

Supplements are not drugs and therefore are not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure diseases. The law does require that every over-the-counter supplement must have the above statement written somewhere on the product’s packaging. So why do so many Americans take something that is not actually intended to treat of alleviate symptoms or illness?  Everyone wants to feel well. It would be great to think that we could take a supplement, solve whatever medical problem there is, and never experience any side effects from the supplement, and therefore be able to cut out prescription medications that do have side effects.  Many consumers fall victim to products that either make vague claims to cure or that use other marketing techniques which fool them, such as products that have catchy names like “Prostate Health” or “Breast Health.” The consumer purchases this product in order to protect himself or herself against cancer even though it is clearly stated on the side of the bottle that the FDA has not approved any of the company’s claims and that the supplement is not intended to treat or prevent any disease. As a general rule, if a claim about a supplement seems too good to be true, it probably is not true and you should not put it in your body or on your skin.

By now you may be asking yourself if you should ever take a supplement. The answer to that question is maybe. If you don’t eat adequate quantities of essential vitamins, then you should take supplements which provide those vitamins. If you are on a very restrictive diet for weight loss, or if you have had gastric bypass surgery, or if you are a vegetarian, or if you are pregnant, vitamin supplementation is important. If you have low levels of vitamin D, a vitamin supplement may be beneficial.  A number of current clinical studies are examining the overall health risks of having a low vitamin D level and determining if there is benefit to supplementing; the results from that trial should be available soon. On the other hand, supplementation with calcium for bone loss has been the standard recommendation for years. But a recent article in the Journal of Internal Medicine stated, “Most studies show little evidence of a relationship between calcium intake and bone density, or the rate of bone loss…Five recent large studies have failed to demonstrate fracture prevention in their primary analyses.” Taking calcium is not without risk – there is an increase in gastrointestinal issues and kidney stones as well as an increase in risk of myocardial infarction. Have a discussion with your doctor about whether the benefits of taking calcium outweigh the risks for you. Weight baring exercises and yoga have been shown to help increase bone density and prevent fractures and usually have no side effects!

If you do decide to take a supplement, please make sure that you read the label. Most supplements have both active and inactive ingredients. Pick vitamins that have few fillers, binders, flavors, and food coloring.  Some supplements can interfere with prescription medication by either enhancing the effects of decreasing the effects of the medicine, so you should find out from a qualified professional whether this supplement can cause problems for you. Since some supplements may increase bleeding risk, they should be discontinued prior to surgery.

Before taking a dietary supplement, ask yourself: What is the benefit for me? Are there any risks to taking this supplement?

In order to have a nutritionally sound diet, you need to eat real whole food, such as protein, low fat milk products, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. Healthy skin requires proper hydration and a good night’s sleep. Strong bones and muscles require movement and exercise. A supplement can at times be helpful, but it cannot be a replacement for a healthy lifestyle.

By Beth S. Taubes, RN, OCN, CBCN, Certified Health Coach