Dietary Supplements & Safety

Photo Credit: KTo288 CC-BY-SA-3.0 2009

In recent years there has been an increase in the marketing and use of dietary supplements. Herbal and so-called natural supplements are available at grocery stores and pharmacies in nearly every town in America. Dietary supplements may tout benefits such as lowering blood pressure, appetite suppression for weight loss, increased energy or improved sexual performance. Dietary supplements, especially herbal concoctions, are not subject to the same strict FDA regulations that apply to prescription drugs. Manufacturers of herbal dietary supplements are not required to have FDA approval before marketing their product. Manufacturers of dietary supplements can make health benefit claims if the manufacturer can show some research to support the health claims, and if the manufacturer disclaims FDA approval and evaluation of the claims. Essentially, all that is required of dietary supplement makers is that they follow good manufacturing practices and meet minimum quality standards. The FDA does monitor safety reports of dietary supplements after they are available to the public. Even if a manufacturer follows the less stringent rules to the letter, there is still no guarantee that an herbal supplement is safe for you to take. The side effects of many plant extracts are not completely understood and the combination of different herbal supplements may cause serious side effects. Always consult a physician before taking any over- the-counter herbal supplement.
Compare the ingredients contained in dietary supplements. A reliable database of ingredient information is maintained by the National Library of Medicine. Visit the National Library of Medicine website for information about the plant source, uses and known or potential side effects of a supplement ingredient. The database contains a list of all known herbal and other dietary supplements in alphabetical order, so information is easy to find. You can also search for information about ingredients by uses, manufacturer or brand name. Research all ingredients, not the just the primary ingredient. Dietary supplements often contain many ingredients, some in trace amounts. Even tiny amounts of some ingredients can have serious side effects if you are sensitive to the ingredient or have an allergy. It is critical to your health that you educate yourself about supplement ingredients and talk to your doctor before using any over-the-counter herbal or other dietary supplement. 
Dietary supplements may be beneficial if used properly with the advice and supervision of your doctor. Avoid mixing different types of supplements without knowing the potential side effects of each and how the ingredients react when combined. Your doctor is the best person to talk to about whether you need a dietary supplement.

For more information about dietary supplements, see:

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Using Dietary Supplements Wisely

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