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[Wellness] Are Your Supplements Safe?

Welcome back to Wellness Wednesday everyone! A couple of weeks ago, I asked what you’d like to know about wellness. Several people mentioned that they’d like to know more about supplements. Dietary supplements are big business. Everywhere we look, we’re being urged to try this all-natural ‘cure’ or being promised that this amazing supplement will improve our health in some way. But do they really work? And most importantly, are these supplements even safe?

According to Dr. Pieter Cohen, who is a dietary supplement safety researcher and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, “A lot of people are spending unnecessary sums for things that in most cases will do nothing.” (1)

That’s not to say that all supplements are bad, though. Some dietary supplements can help us get adequate amounts of essential nutrients if our diet is not ideal. Sometimes we need supplements to improve overall health or manage certain health conditions. (2)

One thing that comes immediately to mind is taking calcium and Vitamin D to support bone health, folic acid to support fetal development, or probiotics to support gut health.

Of course, the preferred way to get most of our required nutrients is through a well-balanced diet. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible for us to eat well all the time. That’s when we might need to look at supplementing our diet.

When Are Supplements Appropriate?

Healthcare providers often recommend supplements for people with “elevated nutrient needs and people who may not always eat well.”(3)

Here are some instances where doctors might recommend supplementation:

  • Pregnant and/or breastfeeding women. As mentioned above, folic acid is critical for healthy fetal development, and pregnant mothers also have increased needs for iron and other nutrients. When mothers are breastfeeding, they may have even greater needs than when they were pregnant.
  • Children. Do you have a picky eater? If you do, you know how hard it can be to get them to eat a balanced diet. A basic multi-vitamin may ensure they get the nutrients they need.
  • People with severe food restrictions. Whether it’s because of a health issue or if you’re severely restricting calories or eliminating certain food groups, supplementation might help.
  • Elderly people. Inadequate stomach acid (which is essential for the proper absorption of vitamin B12) is common among older adults. They may also have low levels of vitamin D and calcium, which are critical for bone health.

Not only are people supplementing with vitamins, minerals, etc., they’re also looking for natural alternatives for pain relief, energy, weight loss – any number of things.

It’s All-Natural, So It Must Be Safe, Right?

The thought is often, “It’s natural, so it’s safe. Even if it doesn’t help, it won’t hurt me.” That’s not necessarily the case though.

Do you remember the news reports around the supplement ephedra (also known as ma huang) years ago? It was widely used in natural weight-loss supplements because it decreases appetite. It also has life-threatening side-effects like dangerous increases in blood pressure, heart attacks, seizures, strokes, and even some serious psychiatric illnesses.(4) That doesn’t sound very safe, does it?

We also need to be cautious about taking supplements when we’re taking prescription medications. Some supplements can interact with medications we’re already taking and cause serious problems. For instance, vitamin K can interfere with the drug Warfarin’s ability to prevent blood from clotting, St. John’s wort can speed up the breakdown of medications, and some antioxidants can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

So how do we know the supplements we’re buying are safe?

The short answer? We don’t. Herbal supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means they’re not subjected to the same rigorous safety and efficacy (does it work?) testing that new medications are.

In 2007, the FDA did issue regulations that require dietary supplement manufacturers to implement Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) by 2010. These CGMPs don’t “address supplement safety or their effect on health”(4) but they do ensure consistency in manufacturing, which helps avoid dosing errors, wrong ingredients, etc..

If You’re Considering Using A Supplement

Do your homework.

Research any supplements you’re considering. Remember that the supplement companies want to sell you their product, so it’s not enough to take their word for whether their supplements are safe or work as they claim.

When evaluating scientific studies conducted on the supplement in question, take note of who commissioned and conducted the study. Those conducted or financed by product manufacturers are not always credible.

Look for the U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) mark. This still doesn’t guarantee safety or efficacy, but it does let you know that the ingredients are “consistent with those stated on the label; that the supplement has been manufactured in a safe, sanitary, controlled facility; and that the product dissolves or disintegrates to release nutrients in the body.”(3)

Another source of unbiased information about supplements is ConsumerLab. Their stated mission is, “to identify the best quality health and nutritional products through independent testing.” Their website is a wealth of information.

Consult your medical team.

Talk to your doctor before taking a supplement if you’re taking it to help treat a health condition or if you’re already being treated for a health condition. As we’ve already discussed, supplements can interact with medications you’re already taking. They may also cause certain medical issues to worsen. It’s important that we talk to our doctors ahead of time.

The National Institutes of Health recommends you have the answers to these questions before you start to take a new supplement:

  • What are its potential benefits for me?
  • Does it have any safety risks?
  • What is the proper dose to take?
  • How, when, and for how long should I take it? 

Talking with your doctor and pharmacist can help you answer them.

The Bottom Line

Dietary supplements can help prevent deficiencies in our diets and perhaps, improve our wellness. We just need to do our homework and make sure we’re using supplements that are safe and effective. We definitely don’t want to cause ourselves harm or waste our money on things that don’t work. As always, knowledge is power – in this case, power to make wise decisions for our wellness.

How do you ensure the supplements you take are safe and effective? Please share!

Blessings,

~Terri

Sources:

(1) https://www.health.harvard.edu/mens-health/dietary-supplement-safety

(2) https://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx

(3) Nutrition, Fourth EditionCertification Manual, 2013; Paul Inset; Don Ross; Kimberley McMahon; Melissa Bernstein; Jones and Bartlett Learning; Burlington, MA

(4) Sports Nutrition for Health Professionals, 2015; Natalie Digate Muth; F.A. Davis Company; Philadelphia, PA

https://www.consumerlab.com

33 comments

    1. Thank you so much Wendi! Taking supplements is necessary for a lot of people. Unfortunately, not all manufacturers are scrupulous so we have to take matters into our own hands. I hope you’re staying well sweet friend. Blessings to you!

  1. Great post Terri, I’ve been taking Vitamin D and Turmeric. I can honestly say I feel no benefit from the Turmeric but I will finish the 3 months and see what happens when I stop talking them x

    1. Thanks so much Barbara! I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts about the Turmeric once you’ve finished it. I know it’s getting a lot of press right now, but I’m not sure if science supports it. I’d love to know if you found any benefit over time. Hope you’re staying well sweet friend. Sending hugs your way!

  2. In addition to your sources I look to see if manufatured in a FDA approved facility, which may be the same thing your were saying. I look to see who else is touting their horn, but there is no sure way and the FDA is overwhelmed doing the job they have. I take Elderberry and Iron which was doctor reccomended. Other suppliments I’m looking at are the anceint ones who have years of people saying they worked. Again, will they help my immune system I don’t know. I’m completely focused on immune health right now. Great post. Thanks. 🙂

  3. An important topic and incredibly well covered. It’s a booming, multi-million dollar/pound industry, and it’s disconcerting to think so many of us ‘waste’ money on things that won’t do anything. That said, I’d rather that than they think could do harm. Natural doesn’t always mean safe, nor does it mean a seemingly safe product is suitable for everyone because of differences in our health and what other things we may or may not be taking. St John’s Wart is something from years ago I remember reading about (prior to chronic illness and knowing more about these sorts of things); it surprised me just how much it can interact with other medications and that was when I first really realised that natural doesn’t mean a definite green light for taking it and that supplements deserve more serious consideration than many people, myself included at the time, give them when we trust they can’t be harmful. It always pays to do your research and to ask any queries. Super duper post, Terri!

    Caz xx

    1. Thank you so much for sharing Caz! You’re so right — natural doesn’t always mean safe. That’s the thing that worries me about the huge increase in the ‘natural’ supplements arena. So often, people think that just because things are natural they won’t do any harm, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. As you said, “it always pays to do your research”! Hope you’re feeling better sweet friend. Sending hugs!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing Mishka! You bring up a great point about making sure your supplements aren’t filled with extra stuff. In one of the articles I read while researching this, I learned that a lot of so-called ‘natural’ supplements actually had some pharmaceuticals in them. Yikes! Hope you’re doing well sweet friend. Sending hugs!

  4. I liked this post Terri. More often than not, a lot of us just assume that if we don’t get the necessary nutrients from the foods we eat, we can just take a supplement to make it balance out without really researching into it. Your post just shines a light on how we need to take care of ourselves. In order to do that, “we” need to put in the time and effort to research the things we put into our bodies in order for us to have a prosperous health.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing Mark! You’re so right about so many of us thinking we can balance out our diet by just taking a supplement. I think supplements have a place, especially if we have conditions that keep us from processing our real food correctly, but it’s so important to do our research and work with our healthcare teams to make sure we’re not hurting ourselves rather than helping…. Hope you’re doing well and having beautiful weather over your way! Blessings to you!

  5. Great well balanced post Terri.
    St John’s wort was one that came up often with my patients who were taking antidepressants, it really does effect their doses & be quite debilitating.
    I look for reputable manufacturers & only go with my physicians recommendation which is a Vit D supplement. Otherwise I eat a well balanced diet of plenty of veggies, fruit & meat using your recommended portion hand guide 😉
    Bless you,
    Jennifer

    1. Thanks so much for your insight on the St. John’s Wort Jennifer! Balanced diet is so important to our health. I think sometimes we forget that supplements don’t necessarily work the same in the body as actual foods. There’s something synergistic effect with whole foods that we don’t get with individual supplements. I’m so glad you’re finding the hand portions helpful! Sending hugs your way!

  6. Another good post. I think many consider supplements as harmless – “The body will discard what it doesn’t need” – but that’s just not true. Like any substance, we can overload our system. Over the years I have simplified my intake to what I know I need.

  7. Amazing post, Terri! You’re absolutely right — natural doesn’t mean safe and medical claims can easily be false! When it comes to shady sales – many companies, sadly, don’t care whether they ruin our health or not. Money in their pocket is their chief concern. (sigh)

    I share your concern about the safety of supplements. I also agree with you that a high quality supplement can have a significant improvement in one’s health when it’s needed. I have found great help in hemp oil/CBD, magnesium, adrenal & thyroid support, etc. It is amazing how healing what God placed on this Earth is. Our foods, herbs and other nutrients have the ability to help turn our lives from miserable to manageable (or better!)

    Your post was thoughtful, balanced and as always, perfectly written. I love your posts, Terri. You’re a gifted writer my friend! ♥ Praying you and yours are well. So sorry I’ve been behind & out of touch!

    1. Thank you so very much for your kind words Holly! I hope all is well with you — I’ve gotten behind also. Who knew making such a small shift in the direction of the blog would make such a huge amount of work!😁 I’ve been enjoying it, but I haven’t been able to do as much ‘visiting’ as I’d like lately. I hope you’re staying safe and well sweet friend! Sending hugs your way!

  8. Very informative post. I think your research and also your advice to consult our medical profession (pharmacy and dr) is excellent for supplements. I would add routinely. Sometimes we may not even think to mention supplements when we are reviewing our medical list during our dr’s appt. Thank you for this information.

    1. Thanks so much Sarah! You’re right — when our doctors ask what we’re taking, we need to include everything – our prescription meds, over-the-counter meds, and any supplements we’re taking. That can help us avoid adverse interactions. Hugs!

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