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‘Sup with Supplements?

A Guide to Dietary Supplements

There’s no substitute for a healthy diet and good nutrition, but dietary supplements can have a place in your diet and may provide an additional source of nutrients you may not consume as frequently. Still, like anything you put into your body, it’s important to know the basics about dietary supplements before you incorporate any into your routine. Be sure to talk to your primary care physician, too, particularly if you are on any medications or if you plan to use supplements to treat a condition.

A supplement is a catchall term for pills, capsules, tablets or fluids that contain one or more dietary ingredient (vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids) and are taken to supplement a complete healthy diet. While many people in the United States receive enough nutrients from their regular meals, most can also benefit from a daily multivitamin to cover any shortcomings. Specific supplements taken to target a deficiency should be incorporated with the guidance of a physician.

Vitamins, Minerals and Multivitamins

Vitamins, minerals and multivitamins are one group of supplements. Most contain only one micronutrient that serves a specific purpose and benefits the body in a unique way, such as vision (vitamin A), bone growth (calcium) or immune system support (vitamin E). Vitamin and mineral deficiency can affect the body’s ability to function and severe deficiencies can result in conditions like scurvy or anemia. A healthy diet is the best source of vitamins and minerals and most people – even those that follow a less-than-healthy diet – are not at risk of deficiency, making a daily multivitamin the most recommended choice to supplement your diet.

Herbal and Botanical Supplements

Herbal or botanical supplements contain a variety of ingredients, including vitamins, minerals, amino acids and herbs or botanicals. Herbal supplements are believed to support a specific area of the body and have a medicinal purpose, meaning they tend to be used to treat a specific concern. However, most research regarding the benefits of supplements does not distinguish the effects of supplements separate from the other healthy habits participants may follow. In studies that do control for healthy habits and draw from randomized studies, the effects of supplements are even less notable.

While you should consult your physician before taking any type of supplement, it’s particularly important to do so before taking herbal supplements. Herbal supplements can have toxic side effects when taken with over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription medication. Combination supplements like “energy boosting” or “fat burning” supplements may also contain unlabeled ingredients that can cause significant damage and, with the exception of a daily multivitamin, it’s much safer to choose ones that contain a single ingredient.

Furthermore, most supplements haven’t been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children and while the Food and Drug Administration does regulate supplements, the restrictions are less stringent than those for OTC prescriptions. It’s important to remember that dietary supplements can be marketed without providing proof or evidence of safety or efficacy.

Should You Take Supplements?

In general, adults and children both can benefit from a daily multivitamin to cover any minor dips in nutrition. Your primary care physician can recommend whether you should be taking additional or specific supplements. It’s especially important to talk to a medical professional before taking supplements if you are on any medication or considering replacing a medication with a supplement; if you’re pregnant, nursing or considering becoming pregnant; or have a medical condition of any kind.

The following people benefit in particular from supplements with the guidance of their physician:

  • Seniors
  • Children or teenagers with irregular eating habits
  • Pregnant women
  • Women of childbearing age
  • Vegetarians, vegans and other restrictive dieters (e.g. gluten-free)
  • People with eating disorders
  • People with medical conditions (deficiency diseases, absorption problems, dietary intolerance)
  • People who consume a lot of processed or fast food

When is the Best Time to Take Supplements?

Most physicians will recommend taking your supplements with a meal for best absorption and minimal stomach irritation. Some vitamins can cause nausea or heartburn on an empty stomach. Additionally, supplements are also best taken each time every day, both for routine and regularity, though for the most part, the exact time of day doesn’t matter. However, if you miss a day, don’t double up the next day. Excessive doses can be toxic.

Each supplement or vitamin is going to be slightly different and the impact and value will vary based on your diet. If you have any questions about supplements – if you should be taking any or how they will interact with your other medications – your primary care physician will be a great resource.