Dietary Supplements are definitely "in" these days. You see them advertised on television, magazines, the web, and even at your doorstep. Not to mention your daily dose of glowing recommendations of your best friend, your neighbor, and your aunt.
It's an observation that's even backed by facts. The latest statistics from the National Health Centers says that half of all American adults are taking dietary supplements. In fact, Prevention Magazine reported that the United States is the top consumer of dietary supplements in the world. Not surprisingly, the diet supplements industry raked in more than $28.7 billion in 2010, as reported by The Nutrition Business Journal.
Modern Day Magic Potions
But what exactly are dietary supplements? Dietary supplements according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are anything from vitamins and minerals to herbals, botanicals, enzymes, and animal extracts. They come in various forms such as syrup, capsules, tablets, and soft gels.
The FDA also emphasizes that supplements are not "intended to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases" so they shouldn't be claiming benefits that are legitimate only to drugs. But despite this and the ironic disclaimer that they have "No Approved Therapeutic Claims", many dietary supplements still make the claims.
In fact, there appears to be a dietary supplement out there for every body part: for shinier hair, stronger bones, healthier heart, clearer skin, cleaner liver, and so forth. And for every health problem too from the mild to the serious: excess weight, menopause, flu, colds, cough, sore throat, allergy, heart disease, kidney problems, bone pain, blurry vision, and even low libido.
But do dietary supplements really provide you all these health benefits? Or are they rather harming you?
Benefits or Risks?
Dietary supplements are beneficial to some degree, says the FDA. Some supplements help augment the nutrients that you lack and others may help you decrease your risk to diseases. However, the FDA warns that supplements alone can neither provide nor replace all the nutrients that your body needs on a day-to-day basis. Thus, it is advised that anyone taking supplements should still eat a balanced diet. Truth is, if you're consuming healthy foods, experts say you don't need to take supplements at all.
Despite the claims of most dietary supplement manufacturers that their products are made from "natural" ingredients, authorities are stressing that "natural" doesn't mean safe. In a report published in the New York Times, the American Association of Poison Control Centers said in 2005, it has documented 17,843 health care visits related to the intake of dietary supplements as well as 12,314 medical outcomes that range from minor to fatal. The FDA also stated in 2004 that it had received 260 reports of deaths linked with herbs and other non-vitamin and non-mineral supplements since 1989.
The reason for these, according to the FDA, is that many dietary supplements have active ingredients that can be harmful to the body and in some situations, they may even be life-threatening. For instance, they have adverse effects on an individual undergoing surgery. So it's imperative that anyone who will be operated upon should inform his doctor or pharmacist of the dietary supplements he's taking before his surgery.
In general, it's not recommended that you combine dietary supplements or take them with medications including over-the-counter-drugs. You shouldn't also replace prescribed drugs with dietary supplements or consume excessive amounts particularly Vitamin A, D, and Iron.
FDA and Dietary Supplements
But doesn't the FDA ensure that dietary supplements are safe?
Although drugs in the U.S. go through rigorous FDA approval process before they are marketed, the same can't be said for dietary supplements. "Dietary supplements are NOT approved by the government for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed", stated the FDA on its website. "If the dietary supplement contains a NEW ingredient, that ingredient will be reviewed by FDA (not approved) prior to marketing - but only for safety, not effectiveness".
The FDA further said that manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements are accountable in making sure that their products are safe BEFORE they are sold to the public. Safe means their products should be of high quality, do not have contaminants or impurities, and are labeled accurately.
Before the Christmas of 2007, then President Bush signed a bill that required all manufacturers of dietary supplements to inform FDA about any serious adverse effect related to their products that are reported by consumers. Unsafe dietary supplements as well as those with false and misleading claims can be taken off the market by the FDA.
This being the case, a lot of the work in ensuring the safety of the dietary supplements you're buying then falls upon you, the consumer.
So how to become a discriminating supplement user?
The FDA suggests these:
- Always consult your doctor or dietitian before deciding to take any dietary supplement
- Know more about the supplement you want to buy by asking the manufacturers or distributors about the product's safety and efficacy and whether they can prove these.
- Be alert on false statements like: "cure-all", "quick and effective", "can treat or cure" diseases, "Totally safe" or "no side effects"
- Remember the natural doesn't always mean safe.
- Never assume that even if a product may not help you, at least it won't hurt you.
- Use sites of recognized organizations when searching for supplements on the web and not just any source you happen to come upon
- Keep in mind: Be safe, first!