The Skinny on Dietary Supplements

Health & Wellness

September 28, 2018

There’s a barrage of advice out there, from daytime talk shows to the internet, on all the supplements we could be taking. But is it accurate?

While most dietary supplements are not harmful, do you really need them? Here are a few points to consider:

  • Regulation. Dietary supplements — including major vitamin brands as well as herbal supplements — are not regulated to the same extent as over the counter or prescription medications. That means there is a huge variability in the quality, purity, amount of fillers, and accuracy of labeling.
  • Effectiveness. Without a doubt, the most effective way to get nutrients is through the food you eat (think leafy greens). The human body has an amazing ability to detect what we lack and what we have enough of. So while a multivitamin may be harmless, it also may be overkill, and what we don’t need we “pee out.” Vitamins are meant to supplement our nutrition from food, not replace.
  • Drug interactions. Depending on the medications you may be taking, supplements may not only interfere with efficacy, they may actually cause a harmful interaction. If you are on a prescription medication, it is essential that you consult with a healthcare provider before starting a supplement regime.
  • Pregnancy and children. Not only are supplements not held to the same regulatory standards as other drugs, there is a significant lack of studies pertaining to pregnant women and children. Don’t assume that if it’s safe for an adult it’s safe for an unborn baby or child.
  • Beware of a conflict of interest. If you see a provider who recommends a supplement he or she happens to sell in the office, you might want to get a second opinion. You want a provider who has an unbiased opinion, and not one that is based on sales.
  • You can talk to your pharmacist. We realize that you don’t want to schedule a doctor appointment merely to discuss supplements. But the caveat is: be completely honest about all the other prescription drugs or over the counter medications and supplements you are taking. There could be drug interactions, or your pharmacist could recommend dosing, such as a window of time between your prescription and your supplement.
  • Talk to your physician. It’s fine to take a multivitamin, but if you are seeking supplements to combat specific conditions, such as chronic tiredness, you may want to see your physician. A supplement — any supplement — is not the be-all and the end-all.

I would be happy to answer any of your questions. In the meantime, I would recommend checking out the National Institute of Health’s website on dietary supplements:

Author of this article

Holly Smith, MD, specializes in family medicine. She is a guest columnist and located at IU Health Physicians Primary Care, 6866 W. Stonegate Drive, Suite 100, in Zionsville. She can be reached by calling the office at 317.768.6000.

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