About 114 million Americans take dietary supplements on a regular basis — spending an estimated $25 billion a year on these natural products in the hopes of improving their health.
While a healthy lifestyle, not supplements, should be at the “core” of your health care regimen, supplements can help to fill in gaps due to your diet, stress levels, or illness.
In fact, while many can benefit from the additional support of certain high-quality supplements, some groups may be especially in need of this extra support. This includes:
- People who eat a poor, unbalanced or junk-food diet
- Women of childbearing age
- People aged 50 and over
- People on special diets
- Those with a poor appetite
- People on extreme weight-loss regimens
- Anyone who drinks alcohol excessively
- People with certain illnesses or under excessive stress
Supplements have grown increasingly popular in recent years; whereas there were only 4,000 dietary supplements on the market in 1994, in 2008 there were about 75,000, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Sifting through this massive number of supplement options is no easy task, and there are some important facts you should know to not only protect your health but also make sure you’re getting the best return on your supplement investments.
Why You Have to be Picky When Choosing Supplements
This may come as a surprise, but a dietary supplement manufacturer does not have to prove a product’s safety or effectiveness before it is marketed. Further, while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements, the regulations are generally less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
What this means is that it is the dietary supplement manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure their products are safe before they are marketed — FDA approval is not required.
Instead, the FDA’s role is to take action against any unsafe dietary supplement product after it reaches the market — usually after receiving numerous consumer complaints and reports of health problems.
Pieter Cohen, M.D. writes in the New England Journal of Medicine:
“Unfortunately, lenient regulatory oversight of dietary supplements, combined with the FDA’s lack of resources, has created a marketplace in which manufacturers can introduce hazardous new products with virtual impunity.
Although manufacturers have since 2007 been required to report serious supplement-related adverse events to the FDA, the great majority of the estimated 50,000 adverse events that occur annually remain unreported.”
This is why it’s so important to get your supplements from reliable and trustworthy sources. While some supplements are pure and contain the exact doses listed on their labels, others may be far from it. Among the top safety concerns to be aware of are:
Subpotency: The supplement contains less active ingredient than is listed on the label. When consumer watchdog ConsumerLab.com conducted quality testing on over 1,000 supplements, they found one out of four were subpotent, contaminated or both!
Contamination: Heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, chemical solvents, and microbiological contaminants have all been found in dietary supplements. For instance, ConsumerLab.com has found lead in zinc, black cohosh and ginkgo supplements they’ve tested in recent years.
Adulterants: These unlabeled ingredients are added deliberately to a product, and may include prescription drugs and other potentially harmful substances.
In July 2009, for instance, the FDA issued a warning of 75 weight loss supplements that contained unlabeled medications, including stimulants, diuretics, anti-seizure drugs and antidepressants. Some of the tainted supplements contained a stimulant drug at levels three times higher than the maximum recommended daily dose!
Phenolphthalein, a solution used in chemical experiments and a suspected cancer-causing agent that is not approved for marketing in the United States, was also found.
An herbal product widely used by prostate cancer patients was taken off the market in 2002 when it was discovered to have been adulterated with prescription drugs, including DES (diethylstibesterol), a synthetic hormone known to cause cancer in women.
Inaccurate Labels and Misrepresentation: An herbal supplement may contain the wrong plant species, for example. Supplement tablets may not dissolve properly when ingested, making its effectiveness questionable (unlike tablets, capsules dissolve promptly).
Common Supplement Mistakes
Finding a reputable and trustworthy supplement manufacturer is only part of the equation to getting the most out of your supplements. The other part depends, at least partially, on avoiding these common supplement mistakes:
Unrealistic Expectations: Supplements are not a “quick fix,” and it’s important that you realize this going in. They typically provide a benefit over time, not instantly, so for the best results you’ll need to take them regularly.
Tip: You should also be sure you consistently use supplements as they’re intended in accordance with label directions — as a “supplement” to, not a replacement for, a healthy diet and lifestyle.
Overdosing: The mindset that if a little is good, a lot is even better does not mesh well with supplements and can cause serious problems. Taking too much iron, for instance, can lead to liver problems and accumulation of fluid in your lungs. An excess of vitamin A can cause liver damage, while chronic overdosing on vitamin B6 may cause nerve damage in your arms and legs.
Tip: So be sure you follow the proper dosage recommendations when taking any dietary supplement.
Absorption Issues: The most important point to remember here is that fat-soluble vitamins need to be taken with fat in order to be best absorbed. Vitamins A, E, D and K are examples of fat-soluble vitamins.
Tips: To ensure you’re getting the appropriate benefits, be sure to take fat-soluble vitamins with a meal that contains fat. Also, certain supplements are absorbed better when taken in combination. For instance, taking vitamin D along with calcium and magnesium can enhance the absorption of calcium, magnesium and other minerals.
Potential Interactions: Herbal supplements can interact with prescription or over-the-counter medications. It is therefore essential that you tell your doctor and pharmacist about every medication and supplement you are taking.
Tip: Check for potential supplement interactions with medications here.
Which Supplements Should You Take?
Supplement needs vary depending on your health concerns, lifestyle, age and other factors, but certain supplements may benefit nearly everyone. The top three supplements you may want to consider taking include:
1. Vitamin D
It’s estimated that about 70 percent of the U.S. population has insufficient levels ofvitamin D, a condition that’s been linked to chronic pain, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, muscle wasting, and a growing list of diseases.
In choosing a vitamin D supplement, look for vitamin D3, which is the same natural vitamin D your body makes when exposed to the sun. Vitamin D2, which is synthetic, may be less effective.
2. Omega-3 Fats (Fish Oil)
Harvard University researchers have recently named omega-3 deficiency as the sixth biggest killer of Americans, noting it is responsible for up to 96,000 preventable deaths each year. Omega-3 fats like EPA and DHA, which are found in animal-based omega-3 sources such as fish oil, support your heart by helping to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. They’ve also been found to play a beneficial role in a number of unhealthy conditions and diseases.
While you can get omega-3 fats from eating fish, many seafood sources are contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins. So choosing an omega-3 fat fish oil supplement that has been proven to not contain worrisome levels of heavy metals and pesticides is a much safer choice.
3. A High-Quality Multivitamin
Ideally, you would get all the vitamins and minerals you need from the foods you eat. Unfortunately, many people do not eat a healthy diet on a daily basis, and according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion’s most recent Healthy Eating Index, “The diet quality of Americans needs to be improved.”
In fact, they have reported that 10% or more of the US population is deficient in these five nutrients: Zinc (12%), Vitamin B6 (14%) Vitamin C (31%), Vitamin A (44%), Magnesium (56%) and Vitamin E, where 93% of the US population simply does not get enough Vitamin E from their diets.
A high-quality multivitamin acts as an insurance policy of sorts, helping to make up for the times when you can’t or don’t eat perfectly.
Getting the Most Bang for Your Supplement Bucks
Supplements can be a positive addition to your healthy lifestyle and a simple way to promote your overall health and well-being. However, if they are contaminated they may cause or contribute to health problems or, if subpotent, may be a complete waste of your money.
How can you ensure that your supplements are of the beneficial variety? Choose only those that offer superior purity and reliability, from a brand you know and trust. The supplements you choose should go through a rigorous quality control process and offer guarantees of potency and purity. Seek out the best, and do not settle for anything less. To learn more, read CNCA’s Nutritional Supplement Quality – The Facts.
Moshfegh, Alanna, Goldman, Joseph; and Cleveland, Linda. 2005 What We Eat In American, NHANES 2001-2002; Usual Nutrient Intakes from Food Compared to Dietary Reference Intakes, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service.