Alternative Treatments

Dietary Supplements and Vitamins

An Overview of Dietary Supplements

Over the past few decades, dietary supplements have become more and more popular throughout the US. With the majority of Americans now taking herbs, vitamins, minerals, and a variety of natural remedies in supplement form, such products are said to help with everything from arthritis to better heart health to protection against the common cold and even cancer.

At the same time, news reports on dietary supplements are constantly conflicting, with many studies showing that supplements can fight all kinds of illness and others suggesting that some supplements can pose serious health risks.

If you’re confused about whether dietary supplements are right for you, read on for help in making smart supplement choices, avoiding common mistakes, and achieving optimal health.

Start With a Solid Health Routine

In order to be your healthiest self, you need to follow a balanced diet loaded with veggies, fruits, and other whole foods packed with essential nutrients. Too often, however, people turn to supplements as a means of making up for where their diets fall short.

By skimping on good-for-you foods and popping a supplement to fill in those gaps, you’re denying yourself a key advantage of a whole-foods-based diet—the synergistic effect that occurs when compounds within foods work together to produce powerful changes in your biochemistry. Since supplements can’t create that synergy, you could end up missing out on major health benefits.

It’s important to note that some individuals (such as those with dietary restrictions) may struggle to meet their nutritional needs despite their efforts to follow a vibrant, varied diet. If you’re dealing with such issues, talk to your doctor to find out whether you need supplements.

Your healthcare provider can also test for possible deficiencies in certain nutrients often taken in supplement form, such as vitamin D and iron.

Keep in mind that diet isn’t the only crucial element of a solid health routine. Indeed, changing up your everyday activities can deliver many of the health benefits promised by supplements. Instead of taking a supplement to sleep more easily, for instance, consider limiting your caffeine intake and maintaining a regular sleep schedule. Such lifestyle changes—including exercising regularly and practicing stress-reducing techniques like meditation or yoga—can go a long way in helping you feel great and in fighting off countless common health problems.

Gauge Your Supplement Needs

Talking to your healthcare provider is your best bet for determining whether you need a dietary supplement. Although reading up on supplements online or in books and magazines may help build your knowledge of the supplements available to you, though self-prescribing supplements based on these materials isn’t advised.

Far too often, such sources falsely present supplements as a fast solution to issues that require carefully applied long-term change.

Your healthcare provider is also your top expert when it comes to creating a regimen that best suits your highly unique needs. So whether you’re seeking more energy, better brain power, clearer skin, a smaller waistline, or stronger defense against chronic disease, make sure to consult your healthcare provider before investing in any supplements.

Determine Your Ideal Dose

Another big benefit to discussing dietary supplements with your healthcare provider is that he or she can help you pinpoint the dose most likely to meet your personal needs. In some cases, the dose suggested on a supplement’s label might not be right for you. To that end, your healthcare provider may recommend starting with a smaller dose and increasing that dose over time if necessary.

Remember that taking multiple supplements—or opting for supplements that combine several ingredients—isn’t likely to yield greater health benefits.

As a general rule, sticking to a simple supplement regimen is your best strategy for minimizing health risks.

Find a Quality Supplement

Unlike prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications, supplements aren’t reviewed by the US Food and Drug Administration before they hit the market. As a result, there’s no guarantee that your supplement will contain the ingredients listed on the label (or that those ingredients will appear in the indicated amounts).

Furthermore, some supplements may be mislabeled, contaminated with heavy metals or disease-causing substances, spiked with illegal or prescription drugs, or made with lower-quality substitutes for the ingredients listed on the label. Some supplements may also contain food ingredients with potentially allergenic effects.

Still, there are a few ways to up your chances of selecting a quality supplement. These include purchasing your supplements from a reputable manufacturer or retailer, as well as choosing products bearing seals of approval from independent organizations that routinely test supplements for quality (such as US Pharmacopeia, ConsumerLab.com, and NSF International).

Stay Supplement Safe

A misconception commonly associated with supplement use is the idea that natural products are inherently safe. The truth is that most supplements carry potential health risks. While some supplements may only cause minor side effects (such as the bad breath or belching sometimes experienced by people taking fish oil pills), others may result in serious damage to your liver, kidneys, and other organs. For example, a number of weight loss supplements are linked to adverse effects such as chest pain, increased heart rate, and heart palpitations. 

When shopping for supplements, remember that you can’t rely on drugstore or health food store staff members—or even pharmacists—to alert you to the possible risks involved in supplement use. Such risks closely depend on your own health history—yet another reason why it’s so critical to discuss your supplement use with your healthcare provider.

In addition, it’s especially crucial for women who are pregnant or nursing to take caution when using dietary supplements. And because little is known about the effects of many dietary supplements, it’s important to talk to your doctor before taking any supplement in high doses or on a regular basis.

Another potential health risk involves taking dietary supplements in combination with prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications, which may cause harmful interactions. For example, St. John’s wort (an herb frequently touted for its mood-lifting effects) may reduce the effectiveness of certain antidepressants, while garlic and ginkgo may increase risk of bleeding in people taking blood-thinning medications.

Make the Supplement Decision That’s Right for You

In many cases, adding a supplement to your wellness routine can enhance your everyday health and have a positive impact on your body and mind. For help in making your supplement work for you, be sure to take it consistently, look out for any changes in your day-to-day ​well-being, and always keep your doctor in the know about which supplements you’re using.

More from Verywell in Dietary Supplements

Learn more about Alternative Treatments