Our bodies depend on a steady supply of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients for good health throughout our lives. Yet it can be challenging to get all the nutrition we need from food alone.
While dietary supplements cannot replace healthy eating habits, they can provide assurances of adequate amounts of essential nutrients when used responsibly. In fact, nearly 3 in 5 Americans use supplements each month to benefit their health.
Dietary supplements can play a vital role in a healthy lifestyle if you are a well-informed consumer. Here are questions and answers on what you need to know to safely select and take dietary supplements.
What are dietary supplements?
Dietary supplements are a category of products that contain vitamins, minerals, herbal ingredients (such as ginger or elderberry), amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), enzymes (supports biochemical processes like food breakdown), and other ingredients. Dietary supplements are sold in various forms, including tablets, capsules, gummies, powders, and liquids as a way to supplement your diet to support health and wellness.
Dietary supplements are not medicines and they do not treat or cure disease, but they are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Are dietary supplements safe to take?
FDA regulations require dietary supplement companies to follow manufacturing and labeling standards that ensure product quality and safety. When consumers use dietary supplements as directed, they should feel secure that supplements are safe to take.
While dietary supplements can improve your health or help you meet your daily nutrient requirements, supplements can have adverse health effects depending on an individual’s unique health situation. For example, a person may be allergic to a particular herb, or a supplement may interact with a prescription medication. If a supplement causes a serious adverse health effect, manufacturers or health care providers report it to FDA. FDA has the authority to determine a supplement is unsafe and remove it from the market.
It is important to be an informed dietary supplement user. There are credible resources on the internet that can provide a great deal of helpful information, however the internet can also be a source of unreliable information - so it is important to check the source. A basic rule of thumb to remember is that if a claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is. You can always speak to your healthcare provider or contact the manufacturer of the product directly if you have questions.
Who benefits from dietary supplements?
People take dietary supplements for a number of reasons, including to:
- Maintain overall health and wellness
- Fill nutrient gaps
- Support bone health
- Promote healthy digestion and elimination
Yet certain groups of people may need them for altogether different reasons, including:
- Women Who Are Pregnant or May Become Pregnant – Women who may get pregnant should supplement with 400 micrograms of folate daily, in addition to consuming food with folate from a varied diet, to safeguard against birth defects. Folic acid is found in prenatal vitamins with other essential nutrients for a healthy pregnancy.
- Older Adults – As we get older we may need certain vitamins and minerals more than younger people. These can include calcium and vitamin D, to maintain bone strength, and vitamin B-12 that helps maintain mental function.
- People with Food Allergies or Restricted Diets – If you are vegan, have food allergies or an intolerance to lactose, or have difficulty digesting or absorbing nutrients, dietary supplements may provide important benefits.
Should I talk to my healthcare provider about dietary supplements?
Short answer – yes! While dietary supplements are available without needing a prescription from your healthcare provider, there are important reasons to loop them into the conversation.
At the top of the list: Dietary supplements may interact with prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) medicines you are taking, so it’s important to check with an expert who gets the big picture. Your healthcare provider or pharmacist can help find the right supplement for you.
It is also important to notify your healthcare provider of the dietary supplements you are taking when being treated for a health condition – such as heart problems or high blood pressure – or if you are pregnant or could become pregnant.
How can I learn more about the dietary supplement I’m taking?
A good place to start is the product label. The FDA requires all dietary supplements to identify certain information on the “Supplement Facts” portion of the label, including ingredients and amounts, recommended serving sizes, and other information.
The “Supplement Facts” label includes a Daily Value (DV) for vitamins and minerals that tells you what percentage of your daily requirement is provided by each nutrient in the product. For instance, if the label says 80% DV for vitamin C, that means a dosage provides about 80 percent of your daily requirement for vitamin C. The numbers are based on a daily diet of 2,000 calories, so view them as an estimate.
The “Supplement Facts” label was updated in 2016 to reflect updated scientific information. The changes, which are designed to better provide you with the information needed to make informed choices about your health, include:
- New Daily Value (DVs) to reflect the latest nutrition science and changing American diet
- Vitamins A, D, and E units of measure changed to milligrams (mg) or micrograms (mcg)
- Folic acid is listed as folate and measured in micrograms (mcg) of dietary folate equivalents (DFEs)
- For products that contain sugar, you will now see the amount of sugar and % of DV
For more information on these dietary supplement label changes, talk to your healthcare provider.
Sound like a lot to keep in mind? Maintaining a daily log can be an effective way to stay on track. You can create an overall record of your medications and supplements – including how much to take of each product and when to use it – by downloading this form.
Are there any side effects to watch out for when taking dietary supplements?
If you take dietary supplements as directed and consult with your healthcare provider, the risks are low. Mild side effects from dietary supplements can include upset stomach, heartburn, gas, and bloating.
More serious adverse health events could happen if you do not adhere to instructions or have an underlying medical condition. Nausea, bleeding, headache, and liver damage area partial list of the dangers that may arise with unsafe use.
Importantly, healthcare providers can provide guidance on whether a dietary supplement may interact with a medication you are taking.
Report a Problem. Tell your doctor of any issue you experience with a dietary supplement. The FDA asks that you or your doctor report any problems or illnesses associated with dietary supplements to the FDA Safety Reporting Portal.