Should You Buy That Supplement? What to Check Out Before You Checkout

We all want health solutions that are seemingly as simple as popping a pill or tablet or mixing a powder into our food or drink. In fact, more than half of U.S. adults take at least one supplement, making it a $30 billion industry.

Unfortunately, when it comes to dietary supplements, if the hype sounds too good to be true, it likely is.

What are dietary supplements? Supplements come in many forms – powders, capsules, pills, gel tabs and liquids. They can be purchased without a prescription and contain vitamins, minerals and other ingredients meant to enhance the nutrients you get from your diet.

How are supplements regulated? The manufacturers of supplements are responsible for making sure the products they sell are safe. They’re also required to follow Good Manufacturing Practice labeling regulations. However, the Food and Drug Administration does not review supplements for safety or efficacy. According to the FDA, supplements “are not permitted to be marketed for the purpose of treating, diagnosing, preventing or curing diseases.” The FDA does have authority to take supplements off the market if a product is found to be unsafe or if manufacturers are making unsupported claims.

What should you consider before buying? As with anything new you’re trying to improve your health, talking to your doctor is important. He or she can help you determine if the supplement you’re interested in taking would benefit you based on your health history. Your doctor can also help you determine how much you should take, whether there are any side effects or if the supplement interferes with medications you’re taking. Physicians can even test your blood to determine if you’re deficient in something, explains Dr. Denice Logan, medical director, Blue Care Network, and then re-test you to see if your levels have improved. Logan also said a doctor can help patients unable to take supplements orally, by exploring supplementation through injections.

There are also steps you can take before talking to your doctor:

  • Check the science. The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements has fact sheets on many supplements that contain links to reputable scientific studies.
  • Look for verified brands. Supplements that carry third-party verification from NSF International, Consumer Lab, Underwriters Laboratory and US Pharmacopeia confirm the supplement you’re buying contains what the label says it does and that it doesn’t contain harmful ingredients.
  • Be wary of exaggerated claims. If a supplement manufacturer makes claims that it’s a “miracle” or is life-changing in a way that seems unbelievable, trust your instinct, particularly for supplements with new, untested and unverified ingredients.

Are there any supplements doctors do recommend? Yes. While most of your nutritional needs can – and should – be met through a healthy diet, there are some supplements proven to be beneficial for certain at-risk groups of people.

  • Vitamin D: Because very few foods contain vitamin D, it is difficult to get enough from food sources alone. For that reason, many doctors advise vitamin D supplementation, particularly for breastfed infants, older adults and people with limited sun exposure. Your physician will need to check your level before you start this. A recommendation can then be made regarding the needed dose. This is another vitamin, which can be checked in your blood, RBC folate.  If you are deficient this may be beneficial.
  • Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate, which most people get enough of through their diet. However, doctors do recommend that women of childbearing years and pregnant women make sure they’re getting enough folic acid as it’s critical for infants’ development.
  • Vitamin B12 supplementation can be beneficial for older adults as they typically don’t absorb it as well as younger people. People following a vegan or vegetarian diet might also benefit from supplementing with B12. Another blood test, to check the level in your body is beneficial.

This article has been reviewed and approved by Dr. Denice Logan, medical director, Blue Care Network. 

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 Photo credit: Tashi-Delek

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