Dietary supplements: What you need to know

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Multivitamins, vitamin D, echinacea, and fish oil are among the many dietary supplements lining store shelves or available online. Perhaps you already take a supplement or are thinking about using one.

Dietary supplements can be beneficial to your health, but they can also involve health risks. So, it’s important that you talk with a health care professional to help you decide if a supplement is right for you.

Read on to learn what dietary supplements are (and are not), what role the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has in regulating them, and how to make sure you and your family use supplements safely.

What Are Dietary Supplements?

Dietary supplements are intended to add to or supplement the diet and are different from conventional food.

Generally, to the extent a product is intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent diseases, it is a drug, even if it is labeled as a dietary supplement.

Supplements are ingested and come in many forms, including tablets, capsules, soft gels, gel caps, powders, bars, gummies, and liquids.

Common supplements include:

Vitamins (such as multivitamins or individual vitamins like vitamin D and biotin).

Minerals (such as calcium, magnesium, and iron).

Botanicals or herbs (such as echinacea and ginger).

Botanical compounds (such as caffeine and curcumin).

Amino acids (such as tryptophan and glutamine).

Live microbials (commonly referred to as “probiotics”).

What Are the Benefits of Dietary Supplements?

Dietary supplements can help you improve or maintain your overall health, and supplements can also help you meet your daily requirements of essential nutrients.

For example, calcium and vitamin D can help build strong bones, and fiber can help to maintain bowel regularity. While the benefits of some supplements are well established, other supplements need more study.

Also, keep in mind that supplements should not take the place of the variety of foods that are important for a healthy diet.

What Are the Risks of Dietary Supplements?

Before buying or taking a dietary supplement, talk with a health care professional—such as your doctor, nurse, registered dietician, or pharmacist—about the benefits and risks.

Many supplements contain ingredients that can have strong effects in the body. Additionally, some supplements can interact with medications, interfere with lab tests, or have dangerous effects during surgery.

Your health care professional can help you decide what supplement, if any, is right for you.

When taking dietary supplements, be alert to the possibility of a bad reaction or side effect (also known as an adverse event).

Problems can occur especially if you:

Combine supplements.

Mix medicines and supplements.

Take too much of some supplements.

Take supplements instead of medications.

If you experience an adverse event while taking a dietary supplement, immediately stop using the supplement, seek medical care or advice, and report the adverse event to the FDA.

Tips to Be a Safe and Informed Consumer

Before taking a dietary supplement, talk with your health care professional. They can help you decide which supplements, if any, are right for you. You can also contact the manufacturer for information about the product.

Take only as described on the label. Some ingredients and products can be harmful when consumed in high amounts, when taken for a long time, or when used in combination with certain drugs or foods.

Do not substitute a dietary supplement for a prescription medicine or for the variety of foods important to a healthy diet.

Do not assume that the term “natural” to describe a product ensures that it is safe.

Be wary of hype. Sound health advice is generally based upon research over time, not a single study.

Learn to spot false claims. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If you care about supplements, please read studies about supplements that can improve strength and cognition in older people, and fish oil supplements linked to dangerous heart problem.

For more information about wellness, please see recent studies about diet that may strongly prevent memory loss and dementia, and results showing this healthy diet may be bad to your bones.