Tips for staying supplement savvy

If you're considering a dietary supplement, you can protect your health — and your wallet — with two important rules:

  1. Do your research. Be an informed consumer. Know what you're buying and why you're buying it.
  2. Take responsibility for your own health and well-being. A supplement that works wonders for your neighbor or cousin may not be right for you.

Here's how to put these two rules into practice.

Do your research

Be open-minded yet skeptical. Make sure the supplement that you're considering can be of benefit to you. Any pill that is strong enough to produce a positive effect is also strong enough to carry a risk. Do your homework and investigate the potential benefits and risks before you buy.

Gather evidence-based information from reputable sources. When researching supplements, do what doctors do. Look for high-quality clinical studies or clinical reviews of the available evidence published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find many of these journal articles online or by asking a reference librarian at your local library.

If reading scientific studies isn't your thing, look to a noncommercial website, produced by the government, a university, or a reputable medical or health-related association, for a summary of the science. The Internet is a rich source of health information, but it's also a source of misinformation, so be careful.

Follow the 3 D's to sort fact from fiction:

  • Dates. Check the date on any information that you find online. If you don't see a date, don't assume the article is recent. Older material may not include recent findings, such as newly discovered side effects or advances in the field.
  • Documentation. Check sources. Are qualified health professionals creating and reviewing the information you found? Is advertising clearly identified?
  • Double-check. Visit several health sites and compare findings. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health maintains notices of recalls, tainted products, alerts and advisories. In addition, the Dietary Supplement Label Database from the National Institutes of Health contains information about tens of thousands of dietary supplements available in the United States. Check these websites periodically for updates.

Ask your health care practitioner

Be upfront with your health care practitioner if you're taking a supplement. Your practitioner can't help you if you don't provide an honest account of everything you're taking — including natural products.

It's especially important to talk to your health care practitioner about supplements if you:

  • Take medications or are preparing for surgery. Some dietary supplements can interact with some prescription or over-the-counter medications. It's important to identify these potential conflicts. In some cases, dietary supplements may also increase the risk of bleeding or affect your response to the anesthesia used in surgery. You may need to stop taking supplements before your procedure.
  • Are pregnant, trying to get pregnant or breast-feeding. Most dietary supplements, although generally considered safe, haven't been tested in pregnant women or nursing mothers.
  • Have a medical condition. Having a medical condition can change your tolerance or risk related to certain dietary ingredients.

Work with your health care provider to determine which supplements might be valuable for you. Even if your provider isn't familiar with a particular supplement, he or she may access the latest medical guidance about its use and risks or refer you to someone who can. Your pharmacist may also be a good resource.

Watch out for false claims

Unlike some drugs, supplements aren't intended to cure diseases. Steer clear of products that promise to do so. Also look out for the following claims or buzzwords. These are often warning signs of potentially fraudulent dietary supplements. Be wary if:

  • The product claims to be a "cure-all" for a wide range of diseases or symptoms
  • The promotional materials include words such as "magical" or "miracle cure"
  • The manufacturer accuses the government or medical profession of hiding or suppressing information about treatments or cures
  • The manufacturer recommends using the supplement in place of prescription medications or healthy lifestyle choices
  • The product promises a "quick fix"
  • The promotional materials focus on personal testimonies and success stories, rather than scientific evidence

Some people mistakenly believe dietary supplements can't hurt, even if they don't help. This isn't true. Alternative and complementary products and practices may offer real health benefits, but some also pose serious risks. Make sure you know why you are taking the product and what you hope to achieve from its use.

Aug. 04, 2016 See more In-depth