Nutrition-wise blog

Dietary supplements not without risks

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. August 12, 2010

Do you take dietary supplements? Thinking about it? Considering one that says "all natural" because you want to avoid prescription drugs or anything synthetic?

Before you try any dietary supplements, take a close look at the bottle and the science behind the claims. Then proceed with caution. Here's why:

  • Just because you can purchase a supplement, that doesn't mean it's safe. Dietary supplements don't undergo the same scrutiny that's required of prescription medications.
  • Dietary supplements, including herbal supplements, aren't benign. Whether they're in the form of pills, drinks, powders or foods, supplements can have strong effects in the body. Supplements can also interact with prescription medicines, leading to potentially dangerous reactions.
  • "All natural" on the bottle is no guarantee that a supplement is in fact all natural. In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration has discovered chemicals, prescription drugs and steroids in some supplements.
  • Few supplements have rigorous science to support their claims. In all fairness, it's possible the science just isn't there yet. Whatever the reason, you're in uncharted waters when it comes to most supplements.

If you're currently taking or considering taking dietary supplements, keep a few key points in mind:

  • Be skeptical. If a claim seems too good to be true, it probably is. When in doubt, ask your doctor or pharmacist.
  • Talk to your doctor. Tell your doctor if you're taking a supplement and if you experience any problems with it.
  • Look at the big picture. Some groups may be more at risk for adverse effects with supplements. These include teenagers, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people who take multiple medications and those planning to undergo surgery.
  • Look at your lifestyle. Why are you considering taking a supplement? Could you achieve the same results by getting more sleep, starting to exercise or eating a healthy diet?

What have been your experiences with supplements? Positive? Negative? If you had an adverse reaction, was it mild or severe?

- Katherine

Aug. 12, 2010