Much ado about nothing: Supplement-free dietary supplements

Dietary supplements, including vitamins, minerals, and herbs, are used by millions of people every day. In fact, over 50% of Americans regularly take dietary supplements. Maybe you are one of them. If so, you should be aware of some recent news that once again raises concerns about supplement use.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

Miracle cure pill bottle

The most common reason people report taking dietary supplements is to improve or maintain their health in general, but many take them for specific reasons such as bone health or weight loss. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people who take supplements are healthier than people who don’t. However, supplement users are more likely to eat better, exercise, and not smoke, all of which contribute to good health. [more details here.]

Given the claims made by supplement manufacturers, you may be surprised to learn that there is very little evidence to suggest that taking dietary supplements can improve your health. In fact, no scientific organization recommends the routine use of dietary supplements. Among the few exceptions is folic acid supplementation for women who are or who may become pregnant to prevent neural tube defects in the developing fetus. There aren’t many others.

While there is support for using vitamin or mineral supplements to address individual deficiencies, there is no reason to believe that taking supplements will do much to make a healthy person healthier. The fact that all supplements contain the statement, “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease,” should tell you something. At best, taking dietary supplements will cause few, if any, benefits; at worst, they may do harm.

There have long been concerns about the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements. Ironically, this is by design. According to the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) manufacturers do not need to prove that their products are effective, only that they are safe. That said, there are instances in which the safety of dietary supplements has been questioned. [you can find tips for using dietary supplements safely here] Some can interfere with the way that other prescription and over-the-counter drugs work. Others may make certain health problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes, worse. And there is a concern that people might use dietary supplements to treat a condition rather than seeking medical help.

You may have seen in the news recently that the New York Attorney General is taking action against four major chain retailers for selling fraudulent and contaminated dietary supplements. DNA analysis showed that many of the supplements examined were completely lacking the active ingredient and contained other ingredients not listed on the label. In one case, a sample of St. John’s Wort contained no actual St. John’s Wort extract, but did contain the extract of a common house plant!

Some supplements undergo quality testing by independent labs, including U.S. Pharmacopeia and NSF International, and have labels which suggest that you are purchasing the actual substance. Keep in mind that this does not guarantee that the supplement will be safe or effective, just that it has been tested for purity.

Despite these questions about supplement purity, safety, and health benefits, there is nothing necessarily wrong with taking dietary supplements. If you choose to take supplements be aware of potential health risks, know that you may not be getting what you pay for, and don’t expect any miracles. And always make sure you tell your doctor which supplements you take to avoid any adverse reactions with other medications.

Finally, remember that no amount of dietary supplements can match the health benefits of good nutrition and regular physical activity.

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