Dietary supplements: What to know before you buy

Dietary supplements: What to know

Using natural products to promote health is an age-old practice. Major cultures from Aztec to Celt to Han dynasty have used medicinal herbs and supplements to cure ills and increase well-being.

Even today, supplements are a popular form of health enhancement, including within the United States. Recent data show that roughly one of every two Americans has used a dietary supplement at some point, a figure that has grown steadily over the past three to four decades. Of those who take supplements, almost 80 percent do so daily. Multivitamin or mineral supplements are the most popular. Other natural products that are commonly used include fish oil, glucosamine, probiotics, and a variety of herb and plant extracts.

People take supplements because they believe doing so will help them be healthier. They trust that a supplemental amount of a vitamin, mineral or herb will help prevent or improve illnesses, including arthritis, osteoporosis, infections, immune system problems and even the common cold.

Along with potential benefits, supplements also can carry risks, and some can be dangerous. Problems may arise when people have perceptions such as "If it's natural, it must be safe" or "If a little is good for you, a lot must be great." Indiscriminate use of supplements can pose health risks. For instance, use of an herbal extract without proper information and monitoring by a health care provider can be unsafe.

That said, some supplements have indeed proved helpful, especially when used in conjunction with modern medicine. While supplements can't replace a balanced diet or other healthy behaviors, they can be part of an overall wellness plan, if used wisely.

When it comes to taking dietary supplements, it's crucial to be an educated consumer. Know specifically why you're taking a supplement and how it should help you. Ask your health care provider or pharmacist for help choosing a supplement that best suits your needs. And learn how to discern labels and determine which products are most likely to be of high quality.

Aug. 04, 2016 See more In-depth