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Why You Can't Count on Supplements to Make You Healthy

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By Frieda Wiley, PharmD, RPhMay 20, 2019

Making sure your body gets all the nutrients it needs each day is difficult - and sometimes nearly impossible. As a result, more Americans are turning to dietary supplements like vitamins, minerals, herbal supplements, and nutritional products. In fact, at least 3 out of every 4 adults living in the United States have taken at least one dietary supplement within the last 12 months. And while dietary supplements can definitely help support overall health, popping a vitamin or sipping a cup of herbal tea isn’t enough to guarantee optimal health.

“One of the biggest problems is that people either overuse dietary supplements or take them too long, thinking that they are a substitute for whole food nutrition,” says Cathy Rosenbaum, PharmD, MBA, CHC, a holistic, clinical pharmacist and founder/CEO of Rx Integrative Solutions.

So, before you start shelling out money on dietary supplements, Rosenbaum offers tips to help you choose products that will deliver results.

Dietary supplements not regulated like drugs. The FDA classifies dietary supplements in the same category as food, which means they are regulated differently than prescription and over-the-counter medications. Unlike prescription and OTC medications, manufacturers of dietary supplements don’t have to run tests or conduct clinical trials to prove their products are safe or effective in humans. This is why dietary supplements cannot claim to “treat, mitigate, or cure disease”—although some manufacturers of dietary supplements may stretch their advertising message to suggest otherwise.

Not all dietary supplements are created equally, so do a quality check. While dietary supplements don’t have to be tested for health benefits, some manufacturers go the extra mile to make sure their products are as safe, potent, and pure as possible by having an independent third-party laboratory test the manufacturer’s products. Tested products will bear a seal from the third-party company that ran the tests (e.g., ConsumerLab.com, USP/NF) on the front of the product label. Your pharmacist can help you figure out which products meet these standards. Rosenbaum also points that consumers and pharmacists can contact the product’s manufacturer for additional information and request a copy of the manufacturer’s Certificate of Analysis—a sheet that contains information on the levels of active and inactive ingredients and contaminants found in the dietary supplement.

Not all dietary supplements are backed by science. Some dietary supplements have scientific evidence to back up their clinical claims, but others lack evidence or have conflicting data that makes it hard to figure out how well the supplements work for the intended indication. Your pharmacist can help sift through the data if you’re having trouble understanding the results.

“Pharmacists are experts when it comes to reviewing human clinical studies involving supplements,” she says. “They can help you evaluate supplement efficacy and safety based on fact—not hype or hearsay.”

Dietary supplements can support overall health and wellness, but Rosenbaum says people should understand that supplements are just one component of a health plan that includes diet, lifestyle habits, mental health, emotional wellness, and spiritual health among other aspects.

“I encourage consumers to take charge of their whole-person health regimen by developing an evidence-based tool kit that may incorporate supplements as one aspect of healing, but don’t simply rely on taking supplements as an ‘insurance policy.’”

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