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Nutrition

A Closer Look at Supplements

Your 5-Step Checklist

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many consumers rushed to stock up on supplements to enhance their immunity. According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), 43 percent of people who take dietary supplements altered their supplement routines in 2020, with 91 percent increasing their intake.

While dietary supplements may support health when taken correctly and with guidance from a primary care provider (PCP), no evidence shows that supplements cure or prevent COVID-19.

Despite their range of potential health benefits, dietary supplements should be closely evaluated to ensure they are appropriately taken, just as medications are chosen carefully for each patient.

“Extra caution should be taken by certain patient populations, including pregnant women, nursing women, children, people undergoing surgery and older patients,” says Melinda Ring, MD, physician and executive director at Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

Before adding any supplements to your daily regimen, do your due diligence with this checklist.

  1. Research your options.
  2. It’s important to know the basics about dietary supplements before you incorporate any supplement into your routine. Any time you put something into your body, there is a risk of experiencing adverse effects. In addition to researching these effects, isolate the desired benefit or function you expect from your supplement. If you are aware of the risks and benefits, you are better prepared to evaluate the pros and cons with your PCP.

  3. Consult your PCP.
  4. Before taking a new supplement, talk to your PCP. Mention the potential benefits and side effects that you researched, and ask about interference with other supplements or medications you are already taking. One example is blood pressure medication and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10). “Coenzyme Q10, a generally safe supplement often used by patients who take statin medications, may also lower blood pressure. If a patient takes CoQ10 and is already on blood pressure medications, it may lower their blood pressure too much,” Dr. Ring says.

    An integrative medicine physician can also test you for deficiencies to determine which supplements would be best for you, and then make recommendations for a safe dosage and duration. “More is not necessarily better. It’s best to take what your body needs,” advises Dr. Ring. In fact, taking too many supplements can be harmful to your health.

  5. Take a look at your diet.
  6. Many nutrient-rich foods offer similar health benefits as supplements. By more closely monitoring your diet, you can evaluate what vitamins and nutrients you may already be consuming through food. Keeping in mind safe dosages and dietary restrictions, you can try exploring foods like the following before turning to supplements:

    • Coffee (to enhance concentration, energy and digestion)
    • Turmeric (for anti-inflammation)
    • Rosemary (to boost focus)
    • Leafy vegetables (for brain and heart health)
    • Citrus fruits (for vitamin C)
  7. Reevaluate your daily routine.
  8. In addition to diet, the effects of many supplements can be achieved through other lifestyle changes. For example, exercise can enhance your cognitive memory, energy and mood. In addition, improving your sleeping habits and drinking more water are vital to your health and well-being.

  9. Search for indicators of quality.
  10. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not review dietary supplements before they are marketed. “Making sure the supplement is of good quality is critical, as studies have shown supplements may be contaminated, adulterated, or contain too much or too little of what is listed on the label,” says Dr. Ring.

    Looking at the category of supplements is also important when evaluating quality. “Do not turn to brain-boosting, weight loss, body-building or sexual performance dietary supplements without consulting your provider,” says Dr. Ring. “These four categories of supplements are found to be at high risk for adulteration by pharmaceutical drugs.”

    She suggests selecting more well-known and recognizable brands when purchasing supplements rather than following the next big trend. If possible, look for a USP verified mark, from the U.S. Pharmacopeia, or for a review by ConsumerLab.com that suggests the product is of high quality and purity.

Maybe a supplement isn’t what you want after all. “While it’s tempting to go for the quick fix, seek personalized recommendations through a medical evaluation on what will best serve your needs,” Dr. Ring says.

The bottom line: Consider alternatives, such as lifestyle choices, and contact your PCP before incorporating supplements into your routine.

Melinda R. Ring, MD
Melinda R. Ring, MD
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Clinical Associate Professor, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Primary Specialty Integrative Medicine
  • Secondary Specialty Internal Medicine
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