Many of us reach for supplements to improve health and well-being, but do you know how to choose safely?
By Matilde Parente, MD, FCAP
Alternative and integrative practices have come a long way in a short time. Today at least 63 integrative medicine programs are affiliated with US medical schools in 25 states plus the District of Columbia, with more projected to come online in the coming years.
Despite the widespread use and growing acceptance of alternative and integrative practices, many questions remain regarding some nonmainstream healthcare modalities, including issues of safety and effectiveness. One major and persistent area of concern and consumer confusion involves dietary supplements.
Navigating your way down the supplement aisle can be a challenge. Makers of dietary supplements are not required to follow most of the laws regarding testing and requirements that apply to prescription drugs. People tend to believe that just because a supplement sits on a pharmacy or grocery shelf and does not carry a warning label it is safe for everyone to use.
In reality, supplements are not tested first in humans, and only after they have caused injuries that are reported to the US Food and Drug Administration can actions be taken to protect the public. People do not realize that it is in their power to report such problems or are not aware of how quickly and easily they can do so.
So, how do people derive the benefits of dietary supplements without putting themselves at risk of potential problems such as the ones that regularly occur as a result of this after-the-fact regulation?
The following steps can help ensure safety when choosing among dietary supplements.
- Bring up your medication and supplement use with all of your healthcare providers—including all dietary supplements such as vitamins, minerals, and herbs.
- Review the label for any ingredients you may be allergic to or that might cause problems, including hormones, unfamiliar ingredients, a long list of ingredients, or ingredients that may trigger a rise in blood pressure or heart rate.
- Tap into the knowledge of a pharmacist about different supplement choices and possible interactions with prescription drugs, foods, or other supplements.
- Buy only as much as you are likely to consume before the expiration date, and store them properly.
- Know that the more drugs and supplements you take, the greater the risk of interactions or bad reactions; question the need for multiple medications and herbals, aiming to simplify your regimen in consultation with your healthcare providers.
- Stay away from supplements that advertise miracle cures or immediate results and those that promise to help you achieve something you know to be difficult, such as weight loss, super strength, a headful of hair, outsized sexual performance, or regained youth.
- Remember that dietary supplements cannot be sold or advertised to cure or alleviate a disease, so steer clear of such claims and promises.
- Certification by an independent laboratory may be as reliable as no certification at all when it comes to the specific bottle sitting in your medicine cabinet. Look for supplements that follow established, tested procedures, such as those bearing the USP Verified Mark.
- Follow the label instructions; whether or not a product claims to be natural, more is not necessarily better, and more could be harmful.
People who care about their health may be surprised to learn how many useful and safe integrative health choices are available; some of these might be less risky than certain conventional care options. Our wellness state, lifestyle choices, and diet sometimes fall out of balance. For some conditions high-touch, low-tech, and more-holistic approaches can be quite safe, effective, and less costly than many mainstream methods or treatments.
Matilde Parente, MD, FCAP, is a physician and medical editor who is board certified in pathology and integrative holistic medicine. As the founding executive editor of one of the first integrative medicine websites, she led an inter-national team of writers and medical journalists to produce evidence-based, quality-driven content for consumers and health professionals. Trained in integrative holistic medicine, she has written numerous articles and books related to consumer health, nutrition, and wellness. Dr. Parente is a graduate of Duke University; she received her medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco. She pursued postgraduate residency training in orthopedic surgery and pathology in New York City and San Francisco. Dr. Parente is the author of Healing Ways: An Integrative Health Sourcebook (Barron’s Educational Series, 2015; $14.99), available at amazon.com.