Are dietary supplements safe? Vitamins, sports enhancement powders, and herbal remedies have been around for as long as we can remember. New and improved ones constantly hitting the market with favorable health claims, but how do you know if they are really safe?
Often supplements will have more than the listed ingredients, including fillers, dyes, chemicals, and contaminants. Taking what could be considered a healthy nutrient and turning it into something that may be harmful to you. The biggest challenge is knowing which supplements can promote health and which ones you should pass on.
Dietary supplements first hit the market in the 1940s and haven’t left the shelves since. Now we have stores dedicated solely to supplement sales and the industry has grown into a multi-billion dollar business. Nearly 60% of all US adults take some form of a supplement like vitamins, protein powders or probiotics.
Supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, probiotics, and exercise performance powders.
Today we have a plethora of options when it comes to supplements and their sales tactics make it seem like you need them all. But with so many options out there how do you know which one to take, if any? While all of this should be discussed with your healthcare provider, I can start by offering you some safety concerns to keep in mind and my tips when it comes to considering supplements. Regardless you should always consult with your healthcare provider for medical advice and be sure to disclose OTC medications and supplements you’re taking.
So pause on that new preworkout, and let’s review some of the safety considerations when shopping for supplements.
- Supplements are not heavily regulated for safety. Supplements are regulated by the FDA as food, not drugs. This means that the FDA sets guidelines and standards for supplement companies and although they do periodically inspect manufacturing standards, they are not necessarily reviewed before the supplement can be sold to the public. Therefore, it’s up to the supplement company to ensure product safety, but keep in mind they are a business. A business that may not use the best ingredients to cut costs and make a higher profit. Finding a reputable source for your supplements is key to ensuring you’re getting quality products.
- Can experience side effects, interactions, and overdoses. Some supplements including vitamins and minerals can interact with other prescription medications and chronic diseases, such as liver disease since supplements are metabolized in the liver. Too much of a good thing isn’t always so great. You can do a lot of damage from too much of a supplement especially ones with caffeine and other stimulants. Mix an energy drink, preworkout, coffee, and cigarettes in a day and you’ve got a lot of strain on the heart and blood vessels. The heart needs more oxygen and blood supply from all this overtime it’s putting in and things can go wrong in the process putting you at risk for a heart attack.
- No Proof, Not widely studied. Supplements are not studied the way that prescription medications are. Pharmaceutical companies have the funding and resources for prescription drugs intended to treat/cure existing diseases. However, the same isn’t true for the supplement industry. Therefore there’s not enough concrete evidence that you will benefit from taking a lot of supplements.
- You may not be absorbing it. You may not absorb the high amounts that are often found in supplements, which means you end up just peeing out what your body doesn’t want. Wasting time, money, and health risks for something that may not even work. Water soluble vitamins are not able to be stored in the body and excess is excreted through your urine. This is why your urine turns bright yellow with B vitamins. Vitamin C is also a water-soluble vitamin.
- Could be the wrong dose or cheap ingredients. Many supplement companies will use proprietary blends, which is a blend of various elements in a dose so you don’t really know the correct dose you’re getting. Others may use very high doses and if they are fat-soluble vitamins they can be stored in the body and have the potential to build up to very high, even toxic, levels.
Water Soluble vitamins: B vitamins and vitamin C, dissolves in water, and cannot be stored in the body.
Fat Soluble Vitamins: Vitamins A, D, E, & K, dissolve in fat so you must take with a source of dietary fat or omega vitamin, which can be stored in the body.
Benefits of Supplements
Okay, before you come at me, i’m not against supplements. I actually advocate for supplements when used safely and appropriately. I even take supplements myself.
Taking supplements consistently can help improve your overall health. Studies have shown that certain supplements can help with nutritional deficiencies, cognitive function, physical performance, weight management, immune support, and more. Supplements are crucial during pregnancy and may even reduce the risk of certain diseases when taken appropriately.
Supplements do not claim to cure, treat or prevent any form of the disease. They are intended to balance and restore healing to the body. However, our modernization of food processing has eliminated a lot of essential nutrients from the Western diet and nutritional deficiencies can result. Vitamins and mineral supplements can help with this. Just keep in mind that your body is pretty amazing at keeping the balance, but exposure to certain conditions or even just being a picky eater can lead to nutritional deficiencies. The best way to ensure that you’re getting all the right amount of nutrients from your food is to have a diet with a wide variety. Try new foods with all different colors and tastes with various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. However, not everyone likes or is able to try new foods frequently. In these cases, supplements are encouraged.
Generally, there is little to no risk with supplements, but you should always check with your healthcare provider and review if there are any reactions between current medications.
- Discuss any supplements with your healthcare provider- Before taking any supplement, especially if you’re currently taking any prescription medications I would recommend discussing this with your healthcare provider. Write down the supplements you’re taking in your health folder to bring for each appointment. If you’re not doing this already I highly recommend it! If you don’t have an upcoming appointment with your provider, give them a quick call and leave a message that you were concerned about any possible interactions with your current medications and they should get back to you in a few days.
BONUS TIP: create a health folder that you bring to all of your appointments. Including your health history, pertinent labs, current medications, and copies of legal documents. This will come in handy when you’re seeing specialists that do not have access to your past medical history or if you need to grab it quickly before an unexpected ER visit. This will save you time, frustration, and even possible medical errors from being made if you keep all these documents organized.
- Do your research- research the supplement manufacturer. Be sure that it’s coming from an approved manufacturing facility. Compare with other brands and choose a reputable source. You can also contact the manufacturing company yourself to do further investigation. If it’s cheap, it’s cheap ingredients.
- Ensure it’s safe- check the ingredients, doses, and bioavailability. Look for 3rd party verification testing on the label and remember just because it says “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe.
- What works for someone else may not work for you– everyone is different when it comes to their physical health and everyone also responds differently to medications and supplements. Discuss your options with your healthcare provider.
- Give it time- supplements take time to see results. Often a few weeks to months to notice the benefits so taking one bottle may not do much. Consistency is key.
- Supplements should not replace the need for a wide variety in your diet- It’s always best to get your vitamins and minerals from food sources first. Getting nutrients from food is far better than supplements since with food you’re also getting the added benefits of proteins, carbs, fats, anti-oxidants, and phytochemicals that promote a healthy body.
Personally, I am an advocate of good quality supplements when used appropriately. The unfortunate part is that many healthcare providers are not trained extensively in alternative medicine like herbal therapy. If you’re interested in using more holistic treatments for your health including alternative therapies and supplements I would suggest looking into a holistic/naturopathic healthcare provider or one who is knowledgeable on this topic.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website. Some links in this article may contain affiliate links.