Dietary supplements are substances that you can use to add nutrients to your diet or to reduce the risk of developing health problems such as osteoporosis or arthritis. Dietary supplements come in the form of pills, capsules, powders, gelatinous tablets, extracts or liquids. They may contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or other plants or enzymes. Sometimes, the ingredients in dietary supplements can be added to foods, including beverages. It is not necessary to have a prescription to be able to buy most of the dietary supplements.
Some advertisements for dietary supplements appear to promise that they will make you feel better, prevent you from getting sick or even help you live longer. Sometimes, there is very little solid scientific research, if there is at all, to support these claims.
Are dietary supplements safe?
Although dietary supplements can help certain people, sometimes supplements can be harmful. For example:
Taking a combination of supplements, using supplements in conjunction with prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications, or using them in place of medications prescribed by your doctor can result in harmful and even life-threatening side effects. Pay attention to all warnings about these products.
Some supplements can have unwanted or harmful effects before, during or after surgery. For example, both vitamin E and herbal supplement ginkgo biloba can dilute blood and increase the likelihood of blood loss occurring. It is important to notify your doctor about vitamins, minerals, herbs and any other supplements you are taking, especially before surgery.
Do I need to take a supplement?
Eating healthy foods is the best way to get the nutrients you need. For example, fruits and vegetables provide a variety of important nutrients, including fiber, folate, potassium and vitamins A and C.
People who eat the recommended amount of a nutrient at meals and do not have problems absorbing that nutrient will not get any additional health benefits if they take the nutrient as a supplement. For example, people who eat enough fruits and vegetables do not need additional vitamin C.
However, certain dietary supplements can help some older adults by providing them with specific nutrients they need that they cannot get from their daily diet. For example, some older adults may not get enough calcium, vitamin D, or vitamin B12. Supplements that contain those nutrients help them stay healthy.
Talk to your doctor or a certified dietetics specialist to find out if you need to take a supplement. Together, they can review your diet, the prescription medications you take and your health needs, and decide whether taking a supplement is right for you.