Disclaimer: This article is not intended to substitute for the advice of a health-care professional. The dietary supplements you choose may not have been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and their use is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or health condition.
Can they really do what they claim to do?
There are two types of evidence gathered in this type of research — experimental and anecdotal.
- ‘Anecdotal’ are stories from people who use a product and get some benefit from that use. There is a wealth of anecdotal evidence supporting nutritional supplement use.
- ‘Experimental’ evidence comes from controlled studies done by professional researchers. The medical community has begun serious experimental research, but conclusive declarations are still some time away.
Both types of evidence are important to the consumer considering nutritional supplements. Even natural substances, when taken in improper quantities, can be harmful and may cause illness, injury or death. The more you know, the better your chances of getting what you need, so research all information you can find about the supplements you are considering before starting a supplement regimen, and be sure to discuss what you’re taking with your doctor.
Of course, in every industry, some companies cheat — they sell low-quality or fraudulent product. Nutritional supplement manufacturers are not required to list their ingredients the way food makers must, nor do they undergo the strict oversight that drug makers receive from the government. As with any product or service, you usually get what you pay for and cheap nutritional supplements may not be as effective, so purchase health supplements only from reputable manufacturers and dealers.
What are nutrients and nutritional supplements?
Nutrients are the substances the body needs to function–about 45 different elements and compounds according to some professionals. Originally, people got their nutrients from the foods they ate or they went without. Today, science has a pretty good understanding of what these chemicals are, how they work and how to synthesize them or extract them from plants, making them more widely available in support of good general health.
Ideally, humans should get all their nutritional needs met on the hoof, so to speak. The health and wellness industry was created because few people always eat a well-balanced diet. Supplements are now available as pills, gelcaps, softgels, liquids and powders to supplement the nutrients we get from food. Some are designed to be taken alone, others to be mixed with food or drink. There is no scientific evidence that any one form is more effective than another.
Exactly what do those weird terms mean?
“DSHEA” — In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, defining dietary or nutritional supplements as products taken by mouth, containing ingredients intended to supplement the natural diet. These ingredients may include vitamins, minerals, ‘botanicals’ (plant extracts), amino acids or other substances to increase the nutrition in the diet. Sellers must not suggest their products are conventional foods nor that their products should be a whole meal or diet.
“Amino acids” — Building blocks of protein, the substance that makes up a large portion of the human body.
“Antioxidants” — Substances that block or inhibit free radicals — molecules that speed up the aging process and contribute to illness.
“Minerals” — Natural, inorganic elements like calcium, iron, selenium and zinc.
“Vitamins” — Natural, organic compounds given letter designations (A, B1 to B12, C, D, E, K).
Both, in the proper quantities, are essential to good health.
Where can I get unbiased information?
Nutritional supplements information is available from the Office of Dietary Supplements. According to their website, ODS was created within the National Institutes of Health ‘to strengthen knowledge and understanding of dietary supplements by evaluating scientific information, stimulating and supporting research, disseminating results and educating the public.’
How do I know if I need a nutritional supplement?
The ODS website includes a checklist to help you get ready to discuss nutrition needs with your health care provider. Because a wide variety of products are marketed as nutritional dietary supplements, it’s important to remember that these supplements might include vitamins, herbals, minerals, plant extracts or other substances.
Are dietary supplements as safe and effective as any other drug?
Dietary supplements are not drugs.
Drugs must be proven to be effective against a specific disease or medical condition before they can be marketed. If a supplement addresses a nutrient deficiency, supports health or reduces the risk of a health problem, the manufacturer may say so, but they must include a disclaimer: ‘These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not designed to diagnose, treat or cure disease.’
Are there risks in taking dietary supplements?
There are risks in everything, but we still walk across the street and undergo surgery when needed. Nutritional supplements may have unwanted or unforeseen side effects, especially if taken before surgery, with other supplements or medicines or if you have certain health conditions. Discuss your individual situation, needs and all potential risks with your health care provider.
Most doctors agree on three essentials for good health: proper nutrition, regular exercise and a good attitude. Dietary supplements can be a positive part of your nutrition program.