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Many adults and children take one or more vitamins or other dietary supplements. In addition to vitamins, dietary supplements can contain minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other ingredients.
Dietary supplements come in a variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, gummies, and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars. Popular supplements include vitamins D and B12; minerals like calcium and iron; herbs such as echinacea and garlic; and products like glucosamine, probiotics, and fish oils.
The Dietary Supplement Label
Products sold as dietary supplements come with a Supplement Facts label that lists the active ingredients, the amount per serving (dose), as well as other ingredients, such as fillers, binders, and flavorings.
The manufacturer suggests the serving size, but your healthcare provider might decide a different amount is more appropriate for you. If you are confused about following the proper plan, you should consult a nutritionist.
Some dietary supplements can help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients if you don’t eat a nutritious variety of foods. However, supplements can’t take the place of a variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet.
Some dietary supplements can improve overall health and help manage some health conditions. For example:
- Calcium and vitamin D help keep bones strong and reduce bone loss.
- Folic acid decreases the risk of certain birth defects.
- Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils might help some people with heart disease.
- A combination of vitamins C and E, zinc, copper, lutein, and zeaxanthin (known as AREDS) may slow down further vision loss in people with age-related macular degeneration (AMD).
Many other supplements need more study to determine if they have value. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not determine whether dietary supplements are effective before they are marketed.
Safety and Risk
Many supplements contain active ingredients that can have strong effects in the body. Always be alert to the possibility of a bad reaction, especially when taking a new product.
You are most likely to have side effects from dietary supplements if you take them at high doses or instead of prescribed medicines, or if you take many different supplements.
Some supplements can increase the risk of bleeding or, if taken before surgery, can change your response to anesthesia.
Supplements can also interact with some medicines in ways that might cause problems. Here are a few examples:
Vitamin K can reduce the ability of the blood thinner warfarin to prevent blood from clotting.
St. John’s wort can speed the breakdown of many medicines and reduce their effectiveness (including some antidepressants, birth control pills, heart medications, anti-HIV medications, and transplant drugs).
Antioxidant supplements, such as vitamins C and E, might reduce the effectiveness of some types of cancer chemotherapy.
Manufacturers may add vitamins, minerals, and other supplement ingredients to foods you eat, especially breakfast cereals and beverages. As a result, you may get more of these ingredients than you think, and more might not be better.
Taking more than you need costs more and might also raise your risk of side effects. For example, too much vitamin A can cause headaches and liver damage, reduce bone strength, and cause birth defects.
Excess iron causes nausea and vomiting and may damage the liver and other organs.
Be cautious about taking dietary supplements if you are pregnant or nursing. Also, be careful about giving supplements to a child, unless recommended by their healthcare provider.
Many supplements have not been well tested for safety in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.
If you think that you have had a bad reaction to a dietary supplement, let your healthcare provider know.
Talk with Your Healthcare Providers
Tell your healthcare providers (including doctors, dentists, pharmacists, and dietitians) about any dietary supplements you’re taking.
They can help you determine which supplements, if any, might be valuable for you.
Keep a complete record of any dietary supplements and medicines you take. For each product, note the name, the dose you take, how often you take it, and the reason for use.
You can share this record with your healthcare providers to discuss what’s best for your overall health.
Keep in Mind
Consult your healthcare provider before taking dietary supplements to treat a health condition.
Get your healthcare provider’s approval before taking dietary supplements in place of, or in combination with, prescribed medicines.
If you are scheduled to have any type of surgical procedure, talk with your healthcare provider about any supplements you take.
Keep in mind the term “natural” doesn’t always mean safe. Some all-natural botanical products, for example, like comfrey and kava, can harm the liver.
A dietary supplement’s safety depends on many things, such as its chemical makeup, how it works in the body, how it is prepared, and the amount you take.
Before taking any dietary supplement, use the information sources listed in this brochure and talk to your healthcare providers to answer these questions:
o What are its potential benefits for me?
o Does it have any safety risks?
o What is the proper dose to take?
o How, when, and for how long should I take it?
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