Whether they’re spilling out of your medicine cabinet or filling your bathroom countertop, you’re not alone if you’re one of the millions of Americans who take a vitamin or supplement each day.
You may be trying to combat a vitamin deficiency or lower your risk of certain diseases —- or you may just feel proactive about your health after popping a supplement that promises to improve your health.
From vitamin A to zinc, Americans have been taking dietary supplements for decades. When they first became available in the 1940s, people flocked to local drug stores to stock up on these supposedly magical pills to improve their overall health and well-being — and they never stopped.
Dietary supplement recommendations can be found everywhere — on commercials, through social media influencers, and from your neighbors, friends, and family. Amidst the noise, it can be hard to know which supplement — if any — is right for you.
Though many supplements are certainly beneficial to your health, evidence varies widely, and it’s important to know which can benefit your health and which may be harmful.
5 Things You Need to Know About Dietary Supplements
1. Supplements come in many forms.
“Whether in pill, powder or liquid form, the goal of dietary supplements is often the same: to supplement your diet to get enough nutrients and enhance health,” explains Jeffrey Millstein, MD, physician at Penn Internal Medicine Woodbury Heights.
They contain at least one dietary ingredient, such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids or enzymes. Some of the most popular supplements come in a multivitamin (which can help you avoid taking a dozen pills each day), but they can also be purchased as a standalone supplement.
The simplest common denominator? They’re labeled as dietary supplements. Some common dietary supplements include:
- Fish oil
- Vitamin D
- St. John’s wort
- Green tea
2. Some supplements are effective, while others are not.
There’s a reason supplements are so popular: sometimes, they work.
“In addition to a healthy diet, there is evidence that some supplements can benefit your overall well-being with little to no risk,” says Dr. Millstein.
Common supplements that may benefit your health include:
- Vitamin B12, which can help keep nerve and blood cells healthy, make DNA and prevent anemia
- Folic acid, which can reduce birth defects when taken by pregnant women
- Vitamin D, which can strengthen bones
- Calcium, which can promote bone health
- Vitamins C and E, which can prevent cell damage
- Fish oil, which can support heart health
- Vitamin A, which can slow down vision loss from age-related macular degeneration
- Zinc, which can promote skin health and slow down vision loss from age-related macular degeneration
- Melatonin, which can help counteract jet lag
However, despite the amount of research that’s been done on supplements (since 1999, the National Institutes of Health has spent more than $2.4 billion studying vitamins and minerals), scientific evidence isn’t completely clear. Keep in mind: Most studies suggest that multivitamins won’t make you live longer, slow cognitive decline or lower your chances of disease, such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes.
“In fact, it’s illegal for companies to make claims that supplements will treat, diagnose, prevent or cure diseases,” says Dr. Millstein.
Also, the products you buy in stores or online may be different from those used in studies, so studies may be misleading.
3. Supplements aren’t always safe.
In most cases, multivitamins aren’t likely to pose any health risks. Still, it’s important to be cautious when you put anything in your body.
Dr. Millstein explains, “Supplements may interact with other medications you’re taking or pose risks if you have certain medical conditions, such as liver disease, or are going to have surgery. Some supplements also haven’t been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children, and you may need to take extra precautions.”
Also, federal regulations for dietary supplements are less strict than prescription drugs. Some supplements may contain ingredients not listed on the label, and these ingredients can be unsafe. Certain products are marketed as dietary supplements and actually contain prescription drugs within them — drugs that are not allowed in dietary supplements.
Some supplements that may pose risks include:
- Vitamin K, which can reduce the effectiveness of blood thinners
- Gingko, which can increase blood thinning
- St. John’s wort, which can make some drugs, such as antidepressants and birth control, less effective
- Herbal supplements comfrey and kava, which can damage your liver
- Beta-carotene and vitamin A, which can increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers
4. Speak with your healthcare provider before taking any supplements.
“The most important thing to remember is to be smart when choosing a supplement,” says Dr. Millstein.
Your first step should be discussing your options with your healthcare provider, since a supplement’s effectiveness and safety may depend on your individual situation and health.
On top of that, keep these simple tips in mind as you choose a supplement:
- Take supplements as directed according to the label and your healthcare provider’s instructions.
- Read the label, including ingredients, drug interactions, and percent daily value (% DV).
- Be wary of extreme claims, such as “completely safe” or “works better than (insert prescription drug).”
- Remember that the term “natural” doesn’t necessarily equal “safe.”
- Keep supplements stored properly and away from children.
Read about the potential dangers of weight-loss supplements
5. Nothing beats the nutrient power of a healthy diet.
No matter what your goal is when taking supplements, one thing is certain: They aren’t a replacement for a nutrient-dense, healthy diet.
“Supplements are meant to be supplementary — meaning they enhance benefits already provided by eating a well-rounded diet,” explains Dr. Millstein.
Supplements should never be used in place of real food. Don’t underestimate what a nutrient-packed salad can do for you compared to a pill made in a factory.
Vitamins and minerals are essential to helping your body develop and function as it should. While most people get all of what’s recommended by eating healthy, others need a little extra nutrient boost. That’s where supplements come in — providing you with the support your body needs to stay healthy.