Supplements 101- What You Need to Know


Millions of Americans are using and consuming dietary supplements. Dietary supplements can be beneficial to your health – but taking supplements can also involve health risks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have the authority to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. This article will discuss the benefits and cautions regarding the most common supplements.

Dietary supplements include such ingredients as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids and enzymes. Some supplements can help assure that you get enough of the vital substances the body needs to function; others may help reduce the risk of disease. But supplements should not replace a balanced diet, which is necessary for good health. If you don’t eat a nutritious variety of foods, some supplements might help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients. However, supplements can’t take the place of the variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet.

Scientific evidence shows that some dietary supplements are beneficial for overall health and for managing some health conditions. For example, calcium and vitamin D are important for keeping bones strong and reducing bone loss, folic acid decreases the risk of certain birth defects, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils might help some people with heart disease. Other supplements need more study to determine their value.

Many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects in the body. This could make them unsafe in some situations and hurt or complicate your health. For example, the following actions could lead to harmful consequences.
• Combining supplements
• Combining supplements with doctor prescribed medicines
(whether prescription or over-the-counter)
• Substituting supplements for prescription medicines
• Taking too much of some supplements such as vitamin A,
vitamin D or iron

Some supplements can also have unwanted effects before, during and after surgery. So, be sure to inform your healthcare provider, including your pharmacist, about any supplements you are taking.

Some common dietary supplements include: calcium, Echinacea, fish oil, ginseng, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, garlic, vitamin D, St. John’s wort, saw palmetto, ginkgo and even green tea.

Caveat emptor or Let the buyer beware
Be a savvy supplement user. Here’s how:
• When searching for supplements on the internet, use
noncommercial sites (e.g. NIH, FDA, USDA) rather than
depending on information from sellers.
• If claims sound too good to be true, they probably are.
Be mindful of product claims such as “works better than (a
prescription drug),” “totally safe,” or has “no side effects.”
• Be aware that the term natural doesn’t always mean safe.
• Ask your healthcare provider if the supplement you’re
considering would be safe and beneficial for you.

Many supplements contain active ingredients that can have strong effects in the body. Always be alert to the possibility of unexpected side effects, especially when taking a new product.

Supplements are most likely to cause side effects or harm when people take them instead of prescribed medicines or when people take many supplements in combination. Some supplements can increase the risk of bleeding. Some may also affect the person’s response to anesthesia, if a person takes them before or after surgery. Dietary supplements can also interact with certain prescription drugs in ways that might cause problems. Here are just a few examples:

• Vitamin K can reduce the ability of the blood thinner Coumadin to prevent blood
from clotting.
• St. John’s wort can speed the breakdown of many drugs (including
antidepressants and birth control pills) and thereby reduce these drugs’
• Antioxidant supplements such as vitamins C and E might reduce the effectiveness
of some types of cancer chemotherapy.

Be cautious about taking dietary supplements if you are pregnant or nursing. Most dietary supplements have not been well tested for safety in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children.

Bottom Line: Before making decisions about whether to take a supplement, talk to your healthcare provider. They can help you achieve a balance between the foods and nutrients you personally need.

Dr. Neil Baum is a Professor of Clinical Urology at Tulane Medical School.
He can be reached at 504-891-8454 or through his website,

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