Remember when taking a dietary supplement meant a Flintstones vitamin with your fortified Fruity Pebbles? Those days are long gone as dietary supplementation has morphed into a $30 billion industry that is projected to double by the year 2021. (That’s a lot of Flintstones.)

Of course there is more to the industry than children’s multivitamins. We’ve probably all considered adding supplements to our diet, but sorting out what we hear in the media, from our friends and on the internet can be overwhelming. Will adding a supplement actually make a difference? Does the supplement go by other names? Is it safe? Are all brands the same? These are questions that intelligent consumers need to answer before adding any supplements to their dietary routine.

Regulation of the Supplement Industry

Regulation of dietary supplements falls under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. The DSHEA defines dietary supplements as vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals, amino acids and quite a few other substances in just about any form taken by mouth, such as pill, powder, bar or liquid.

Manufacturers do not require FDA approval to market dietary supplements, with the exception of “new dietary ingredients,” meaning ingredients that were not sold in the U.S. as supplements or food prior to October 1994. These new dietary ingredients must have a safety audit prior to being marketed to the public. Otherwise, the manufacturer is responsible for the safety of the products and the truth of any claims they make regarding the product. If a supplement has safety issues or unsubstantiated claims about its health benefits after it is on the market, only then does the FDA get involved.

The Good

Supplements come in many forms and serve a variety of purposes. Vitamins cause metabolic processes in the body to work properly. For example, thiamine (vitamin B1) is necessary for carbohydrate metabolism. Supplementing a diet based on a variety of fresh, wholesome foods with a multivitamin can help insure that any gaps in your diet are covered.

Herbs, on the other hand, are generally considered to have medicinal uses. They comprise some of the oldest medical therapies known to man and treat a wide variety of ailments. For example, parents and physicians are growing in their understanding of how Docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, is beneficial for children who exhibit symptoms of attention deficit disorder.

 

The key to harnessing the potential benefits of diet supplementation is learning to recognize and avoid the drawbacks of supplement use.

The Bad

There is something pleasing about the idea of taking natural substances for our health. Unfortunately, natural does not equal safe. Just ask Socrates, who was executed by forced hemlock ingestion. Of course most supplements aren’t deadly, but there can be dangers associated with their consumption.

Certain supplements can, in and of themselves, cause harm. Synephrine, for example, is often used for weight loss and works much like Ephedra, which was banned by the FDA in 2004. When taken in supplement form, particularly with caffeine-containing substances, it can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attacks and strokes.

Some supplements may be unsafe if you have certain health conditions or take prescription medication. Fish oil is a common supplement with many well-known benefits, but patients on anticoagulants, or blood thinners, should not add fish oil to their diet without a doctor’s consent. St. John’s Wort, another supplement with many medicinal uses, can reduce the effectiveness of several drugs, including oral contraceptives and medications used for heart disease, depression and seizures.

Not all supplements are the same, even if the name on the bottle is. Because of the way FDA regulation of the industry works, we must rely on supplement manufacturers’ assurances about product safety. Not all supplements or supplement manufacturers are created equal.

Finally, claims about health benefits such as “improves pain” or “cures this ailment” are restricted unless there is overwhelming scientific evidence that they are true. Consumers must be willing to research the history of the use of herbal and other supplemental remedies to determine for which conditions they might be most beneficial.

The Intelligent

Mike Sammons had his interest in dietary supplements piqued when a college biology professor suggested that smokers add vitamin C to their diets. This triggered a lifelong passion for nutritional health, and the birth of Mike’s Health Collection in McKinney 18 years ago. Mike has suggestions for consumers to add supplements to their diets in an intelligent, healthy way.

Mike suggests looking beyond the “Supplement Facts” section of the label and checking the ingredients list. “Look for additives such as food coloring, preservatives and even propylene glycol, which is actually antifreeze. When you see these you know you are dealing with lower quality supplements which can be less effective or yield unpleasant effects. For example, lower quality fish oil can cause burping and a foul taste, while the higher quality oils won’t.”

Additionally, before you shop for supplements, consult your physician and bring a list of any medications or health problems you have with you. Many of Mike’s customers actually come to his shop with a note from their doctor for supplements. But even if not sent with physician instructions, a list of health concerns and medications is key in choosing supplements. For example, there are quite a few substances that should not be taken in conjunction with antidepressant medication.

 
Mike Sammons suggests consumers add supplements to their diets in an intelligent way.

Mike Sammons suggests consumers add supplements to their diets in an intelligent way.

Third, a reputable source with a trained staff is important to maximize the benefit of supplements in your diet. A store that specializes in supplements will have a staff trained specifically for helping consumers find the right supplement.

Mike also emphasizes the importance of avoiding sources that are not verifiable. Student athletes who have added supplements to enhance athletic performance often acquire supplements from such sources and can end up with substances too high in caffeine and other potentially dangerous stimulants such as synephrine.

“The combinations of high loads of stimulants with intense workouts can lead to dangerous increases in heart rate and blood pressure,” Mike explains. A reputable source won’t carry such products and will work with customers to find the right dietary additions.

For many people, using natural substances to avoid synthetic medications is a worthy goal. And if those natural substances can help maintain good health, lead to a longer life and result in fewer medical bills? That’s a scenario anyone can get behind. To maximize health benefits and avoid potential dangers of dietary supplementation, consumers should work with their health care provider and a reputable supplier. Finally, as with anything health related, consumers must be willing to do the research to feel confident that they are making the healthiest decisions for themselves.

Buy Local

If you would like to add dietary supplements to your health regimen, start with your health care provider.

McKinney Chamber “Health and Nutrition” Members:

ADVOCARE: sparkurenergy.com

EARTH’S WAY NUTRACEUTICALS & COMPOUNDING PHARMACY Rx: earthsway.net

ISAGENIX / CATHY TYLER: cathytyler930.isagenix.com

MIKE’S HEALTH COLLECTION: mikeshealthcollection.com

NATURE’S WAY EVERYDAY: natureswayeveryday.com

ULTIMATE SPORT NUTRITION: usnmckinney.com

 

About the author: Amy Rogers, M.D., is a freelance writer in McKinney. You can see what she’s up to at copyindisguise.com.