A guide to making sense of dietary supplements

A guide to making sense of dietary supplements

From Ayurvedic products to so-called miracle cures, here's what you need to know about dietary supplements and vitamins.

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The majority of adults and children in the United States take one or more vitamins or dietary supplements. According to a survey conducted in 2019 by the Council for Responsible Nutrition, 77 percent of Americans take dietary supplements. In the United States, the dietary supplement industry’s overall economic impact in 2016 is $122 billion and it continues to grow.

With so much at stake, consumers need to be well educated about these products. If you have ever consumed or toyed with consuming a dietary supplement, this article is for you. In addition to nutrients within vitamins, dietary supplements contain minerals, herbs, botanicals, enzymes, protein or amino acids, natural products, and other ingredients. According to a 2015 study, serious side effects of dietary supplement use are reported to the FDA every year, with over 20,000 emergency room visits due to symptoms related to supplement ingestion.

When it comes to purchasing dietary supplements, ask your healthcare professional for their recommendations, do your own research into products, using government sites such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) or look for third party seals or certifications on products.

In the U.S., supplements do not have to be regulated for safety, so long as they do not contain “new dietary ingredients,”; manufacturers are legally responsible for the safety of products. Independent third party certification programs, such as ConsumerLab.com, the National Sanitation Foundation and USP, ensure that products do not have harmful levels of contamination. Look for a seal or certification from these programs on the product. Know that seals and certifications are one way that the companies can invest in their brand, but that the absence of the seal does not necessarily connote poor quality. If you are unsure, contact the manufacturer for more information on a certain product.

It’s a good call to stay clear from products that claim to work instantly, or promise miracle results. If you are taking a dietary supplement for weight loss or athletic performance and experience an immediate or dramatic effect similar to taking a drug, be aware that the product might be spiked with hormones or steroids. For your own safety, stop taking that product.

Indians and Indian-Americans often use herbal or Ayurvedic supplements to treat various health conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, hormonal imbalance, autoimmune conditions, anxiety/depression, allergies, skin conditions among many others. Herbal or natural does not mean that these products are safe; neither herbal nor Ayurvedic supplements are regulated, and one in five Ayurvedic medicines have been found to contain toxic metals such as lead, mercury, and arsenic according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Additionally, avoid products that are advertised through mass emails, products that claim to work like prescription drugs, or products that claim to treat an illness or cure a medical condition. The Supplement OWL (Online Wellness Library) is a database that serves as a resource to identify dietary supplements, key ingredients, product label information and claims, the companies making and marketing those products. Consumers can evaluate labels and other product information to make better, informed choices.

These supplement labels list the amount per serving and active ingredients, as well as other ingredients included in the product. Some dietary supplements, such as folic acid, calcium and vitamin D are proven to manage certain health conditions and can improve overall health. The appropriate dosage is dependent on several factors: your age, if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you have other medical problems or taking certain medications. The serving size (dosage) on the product is what the manufacturer suggests, but always follow the advice of your healthcare provider for the dose that’s right for you and your particular health condition. It is very easy to overdose if you are taking too much of a certain vitamin or mineral. For example, if you’re taking a daily multivitamin which has calcium along with additional calcium supplements, you might be getting more calcium than your daily recommendation. Constipation, kidney stones, kidney failure and heart function problems can follow as a result of excess calcium.

When used properly, dietary supplements can help promote overall good health and in some cases, reduce the risk of certain diseases. Dietary supplements are meant to be used as supplements and not as substitutes for other healthy habits such as a well balanced healthy diet, regular exercise, getting enough sleep and seeing a health care professional annually. Ideally, the supplements you take complement other healthy habits, which together result in the desired outcomes.

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