Dietary Supplements: Do They Provide Real Results?

There are literally thousands of different dietary supplements available to the US public for purchase and consumption. While many of these supplements can provide many people with a multitude of health benefits, some can have either no effect or unwanted effects. Properly educating yourself on dietary supplements before deciding to use one is one of the best ways to ensure that your health goals are met. The following article will provide links and resources on what a dietary supplement is, how they are used, how they are regulated and considerations and advice that can be very useful in deciding what, and how, to take a supplement.

Dietary Supplement Information

In 1994 the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed into law. This officially set requirements for the information that needed to be placed on products and the type of health claims that could be made. This law defines a dietary supplement as a pill, gel capsule, powder or drink that is meant to complement a diet (not replace it), contains vitamins, minerals or herbs and is meant to be taken orally.

Several studies have shown that certain dietary supplements can be effective in preventing or treating health issues. Folic acid, when taken during pregnancy, can significantly reduce the possibility of several birth defects. A calcium and vitamin D supplement, when taken together, can also help to prevent bone loss or thinning. Research is on-going concerning the health benefits of taking supplements. 

Dietary Supplement Use

A recent survey found that at least 52% of Americans use some type of dietary supplement. The most used items were multivitamins, vitamin E, vitamin C, calcium and B vitamins. Outside of vitamin dietary supplements, a survey in 2007 found that over 17% of Americans use natural dietary supplements, such as fish oil, glucosamine, Echinacea, flaxseed oil and ginseng.

Federal Regulation of Dietary Supplements

Other than the DSHEA law, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements. However, the regulations are far less strict that those for prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. The manufacturer of a dietary supplement is under no obligation to prove either the safety or effectiveness of a dietary supplement before it makes it to the store. However, they do have to have some research backing up any of the claims made on the label, though a disclaimer citing the FDA has not evaluated the statement is needed. Once the supplement is being sold, the FDA monitors the safety of the item, and reserves the right to take legal action against the manufacturer or remove the product from the market if there are issues. Despite this seeming lack of regulation, manufacturers are required to ensure that their supplement is made consistently and with quality standards.

Consumer Advice

While the various supplements available on the market can make choosing one difficult, there are ways to find out if the supplement will be usefull to one’s health. Before taking any supplement, do some research on the benefits claimed and the company providing them. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institute of Health (NIH) all provide detailed information on most of the dietary supplements available, including any research that has been done on the claims of the supplement. It is also always wise to ask a primary health care provider about taking any supplements.

Safety Considerations

There are several things to consider if you are thinking about taking a supplement or are already doing so. First and foremost, all of your health care providers should be informed of any supplement you are taking. This provides them with an overall picture of your health and may influence what prescriptions they write you, as certain supplements can make medications ineffective or produce unwanted side effects. It is also important to thoroughly read the label instructions of any supplement you take and to stop taking the supplement if you experience any unsettling side effects. If you do experience side effects, make sure to report them to the FDA.

While established manufacturers typically do everything in their power to ensure they produce a quality product, there still can be some issues. For example, herbal supplements may not use the correct plant species, making their benefits negligible at best. The label on the supplement may not always be correct, and the product could include more or less of an ingredient than what is printed.