Supplement Safety Myths & Facts
MYTH: You can get all the nutrition you need with food. And vitamins don’t work anyway.
FACT: Many people's diets do not supply optimal nutrition, especially groups with higher requirements, such as children, women of childbearing age, the elderly, and people with chronic diseases.
In an ideal world, food can supply all the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients you need for good health. Unfortunately, many of us don’t live in an ideal world, so food alone doesn’t always cover the bases as many people do not eat the quantities and variety of fresh whole foods needed for optimal nutrient intake. In the United States, for example, only about a quarter of us eat the recommended 3 to 5 servings of vegetables per day, and only 14% hit the target of 3 to 5 fruit servings daily. And for certain groups—the very young, the elderly, people with chronic diseases, and women of childbearing age—vitamin and mineral supplements can help make the difference between health and illness. In all these cases, vitamins may be effective and some of the benefits are supported by strong research. In fact, there are literally thousands of studies on a variety of nutrients found in supplements. Some of these are animal studies, others are observational studies, while others are the gold-standard of research, randomized controlled trials.
For all of these reasons, vitamin and mineral supplements can be a smart investment. A basic multivitamin can be a good place to start. Ask your doctor or dietitian about additional supplements that may help you meet your health and wellness goals.
MYTH: If it's natural, it must be good for you.
FACT: While research has shown many natural treatments to be safe and effective, they should be taken with careful consideration.
While many vitamins, minerals, and herbs are known to safely prevent or treat a variety of diseases, they work similar to a medicine from your pharmacy—by altering your body chemistry. So before supplementing, it's important to learn about possible side effects and especially how each product might interact with medications you already take.
There are times when teaming up a specific supplement with a medication can benefit health, such as when a medicine is depleting vital nutrients from your body. In this case, an extra vitamin supplement may protect your health—but it's always a good idea to check. It’s also important not to discontinue or change a medication or dosages in favor of a natural treatment, unless supervised by a doctor.
MYTH: Everything I need to know about a supplement I can read on the bottle.
FACT: Government regulations restrict manufacturers from making most specific health claims—even those based on results of scientific studies.
You’ll need to do your own research to find out about the potential benefits and risks of a supplement. Start with a knowledgeable healthcare professional before taking any supplements, especially if you are already treating a medical condition. Also, special safety considerations apply to pregnant or breast-feeding women, children, and seniors.
Be sure to research potential medication and dietary supplement interactions. For reported side effects of a specific herb or dietary supplement, look it up in Vitamins & Herbs.
MYTH: The latest scientific study is the last word on a supplement’s safety or effectiveness.
FACT: The quality of the full body of research should be considered—not just the latest.
In the scientific process, scientists never consider one single study to be the last word; rather, each new study is considered in light of previous research and becomes part of the medical community’s discussion.
When the news media report on new studies, they tend to look for the sensational. Though hundreds of studies are published every year showing the benefits of herbs and nutrients for a wide range of diseases, studies that make the news are frequently those that claim a supplement is dangerous or doesn’t work. On the other hand, some research is conducted by groups that stand to profit from positive results, such as a supplement manufacturer “proving” that their supplement (particularly proprietary mixtures) works for a particular health condition.
The next time you see a headline splashed across the news—especially about those supplements that continue to be the subject of heated debate, such as St. John’s wort, echinacea, vitamin E, vitamin C, and ginkgo—consider the following:
- Who is doing the reporting? Is it a press release, a health column describing the study itself, or a journalist relating second- or third-hand news from conference proceedings?
- How strong is the evidence? Some studies lead to convincing conclusions while others are preliminary.
- Are the results published in a well-regarded, peer-reviewed scientific journal?
- Did the researchers use a control group to compare treatment results with the experiences of people who didn't use the supplement? If not, observed supplement benefits may be due to the placebo effect.
- Was the supplement given in a form and amount, and for a duration, that could be expected to be effective based on previous knowledge?
- Was the study conducted by people who have no vested interest in the outcome?
- Is there a body of research that suggests it may help with a particular health condition?
Caution: You should never discontinue or change medication dosages, and/or begin a different treatment without a doctor's supervision.
MYTH: Medicines are always more effective than natural treatments.
FACT: Some natural treatments may be as effective as medicines if used correctly; however, it's important to properly evaluate treatment options before deciding which to use.
When you consider treatment options, discuss the following with your healthcare provider:
- What are the risks of delaying known effective treatments in order to try an alternative remedy?
- Is the research on a supplement’s effectiveness positive or inconclusive, and does it appear to be safe when taken in the proper amounts?
- How strong is the evidence for the medical treatment, and what is the expected degree of improvement from taking it?
- Are a supplement’s costs equivalent or less than those of the medicines used to treat the same condition?
- How do the potential dangers of taking the supplement compare with the relative dangers of taking medicine?
Talking with a knowledgeable professional, asking questions, and using a science-based resource that includes up-to-date research will help you interpret the significance of scientific findings. Being informed is the best way to make smart health decisions.