Many women take dietary supplements to help them stay healthy. Is this a smart thing to do?
How to decide about Dietary Supplements
What’s a dietary supplement?
Over 50,000 dietary supplements, mostly in the form of vitamins and minerals, but also including herbals, botanicals, amino acids and enzymes are on sale in supermarkets, pharmacies and health stores across the country. More than half of the U.S. adult population consumes them—creating a multi-billion dollar industry.
Vitamins and minerals
Everyone knows that vitamins and minerals are essential to our physical and mental health. But not everyone understands that the very best source of vitamins and minerals is the food we eat.
Generally speaking, the only time you should need a dietary supplement is when your body is not getting enough of any of these essential ingredients—either because you aren’t eating a balanced diet or because your body is unable able to absorb the nutrients you need. In either case, the best person to advise you is your doctor.
For older women whose diets are rich in fruits and vegetables, there are a few supplemental vitamins and minerals that have proven health benefits. Calcium can play an important role in supporting bone strength and preventing osteoporosis. Vitamin D also supports bone strength and can prevent falls and fractures in people with significantly low levels of Vitamin D. Ask your doctor about appropriate levels of calcium and have your Vitamin D levels checked.
Beware of false claims
Manufacturers are not permitted to make claims, such as “reduces arthritic pain” or “treats depression.” Claims like these can be legitimately made only for drugs that require FDA approval before being marketed.
Who regulates dietary supplements?
Though many people (including some doctors) assume that the food supplements appearing on their drugstore shelves have been approved by the FDA for safety and effectiveness, this is not so. United States federal law does not require any FDA oversight of dietary supplements before they are marketed.
Once a supplement is on the market, however, the FDA has two responsibilities: First, to monitor the mandatory reports about any seriously adverse consumer reactions that have been received by the manufacturer; second, to monitor any voluntary reports about adverse reactions sent by consumers and/or healthcare professionals. This is usually the agency’s first opportunity to take action against a product that may present a significant health risk or is otherwise adulterated or misbranded.
Can dietary supplements be harmful?
Yes, indeed. It’s just as important for your primary doctor to have a list of any dietary supplements you take as it is for him/her to know about all your medications. Many supplements (including those described as “natural,” such as green tea pills) contain active ingredients that can have harmful, even deadly effects. Here are three examples:
1. Using supplements with medications (prescription or over-the-counter).
If you are taking coumadin (a prescription medication), ginkgo biloba (an herbal supplement), aspirin (an over-the-counter drug), and vitamin E (a vitamin supplement), you are taking four different blood-thinning substances! In combination, they may seriously increase your potential for internal bleeding or stroke.
St. John’s Wort (an herbal supplement), on the other hand, may reduce the effectiveness of some prescription drugs you may be taking for depression, seizures, heart disease or certain cancers.
2. Taking supplements when planning surgery.
Supplements can have serious effects before, during and after surgery through dangerous supplement/drug interactions that can affect heart rate, blood pressure, or bleeding risk. It’s important to let your doctor and pharmacist know what supplements you are taking at least two to three weeks before any surgical procedure. (Note: Although after surgery, liquid nutritional supplements may provide calories until your appetite is restored, there is little evidence of any health benefits once you are able to eat.)
3. Taking more that the recommended amount of certain vitamins and/or minerals.
Depending on the supplement, your age and the status of your health, taking more than 100% of some vitamins and minerals—e.g., vitamins A and D, and iron—from both supplements and food sources (e.g., vitamin- and/or mineral-fortified cereals and drinks) can actually damage your health. Large amounts can also interfere with the effectiveness of some medications.
Bad reaction to a dietary supplement?
Report any serious problem directly to the FDA’s MedWatch Program. Call 800-FDA-1088 or fax: 800-FDA-0178.
This article has been reviewed by Patricia Bloom MD and Harrison Bloom MD, authors of the recently published book: Get Up and Move Your A**! A Light-Hearted But Serious Guide to Successful Aging. For more information, go to www.doctorsbloom.com.
For more Information:
- Consumers - Dietary Supplements:What You Need to Know
- Using Dietary Suppliments - Tips for Older Dietary Supplement Users
- Skip the Supplements - NY Times.com
- Dietary Supplements - Food and Drug Administration
- Dietary Supplement - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia