Just walk the aisles of your local pharmacy or grocery store and you’ll probably see them: Rows and rows of vitamins and supplements. From improving digestion to protecting heart health to boosting immunity, these pills are packed with presumed benefits, and if you’re like most adults, you probably have at least tried one or two. While pharmaceuticals are reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency isn’t authorized to review the ingredients of vitamins or supplements before they’re marketed to the consumer.
Supplements vs. Medication
When your doctor gives you a prescription for a medication or when you pick up a bottle of cold medicine at the pharmacy, you’re going to be using a product that was tested by the FDA to ensure it does what it claims to do without dangerous side effects. Supplements, however, are treated like a food by the FDA. That means they don’t have to go through the testing medications do. And instead of the FDA regulating them, the products are self-regulated by each manufacturer.
What is a supplement?
According to the FDA, a supplement has biologically active compounds that are naturally occurring. These compounds may contain herbs, vitamins or minerals. The FDA doesn’t allow supplement makers to make any health-related claims on labels that their product may cure, treat or prevent a disease.
Makers must report any adverse events—allergic reactions or serious side effects—to the FDA, but the FDA can only take a supplement off the market if it’s inaccurately labeled or is unsafe.
How to take dietary supplements safely
- Talk to your doctor: Before taking any new drug—over-the-counter or prescription—or supplement, you should talk to your doctor first. He or she knows your health history, your current medications and can tell you side effects to watch for or whether a supplement will interact with any medicines you’re taking.
- Do your research: Look at what each compound contains and see if there have been any published studies examining the ingredient. Nutrition.gov has information on supplements.
- Look at the ingredients: If you find a supplement you would like to use, check its ingredients to make sure there are no additives you could react to. This includes ingredients derived from milk, fish or wheat, if you have an intolerance or allergies.
- Follow the dosage instructions: Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, you should adhere to the dosage instructions on the package. If you experience side effects, tell your doctor.
While supplements may provide some benefits, it’s important to talk with your doctor before you try them. Doing so can ensure you have the right supplement for your needs and help minimize the risk of side effects.