Many people take dietary supplements in an effort to be well and stay healthy. Herbal medicines or botanicals, also called “natural products,” are one type of dietary supplement. Dietary supplements can come in the form of pills, powders, or liquids and are widely available. While there is a lot of evidence that dietary supplements help in preventing and treating nutrient deficiency, there is much less evidence about their usefulness in preventing or treating other diseases. So, there is a lot we don’t know.
If you are thinking about or are using a dietary supplement, here are five tips to consider.
- Take charge of your health by being an informed consumer. The standards for marketing supplements are very different from the standards for drugs. For example, marketers of a supplement do not have to prove to the Food and Drug Administration that it is safe or that it works before it arrives on grocery store shelves. Find out what the scientific evidence says about the safety of a dietary supplement and whether it works. The resources below can help you.
- “Natural” does not necessarily mean “safe.” For example, the herbs comfrey and kava can cause serious harm to the liver. Also, when you see the term “standardized” (or “verified” or “certified”) on the bottle, it does not necessarily guarantee product quality or consistency.
- Interactions are possible. Some dietary supplements may interact with medications (prescription or over-the-counter) or other dietary supplements, and some may have side effects on their own. Research has shown that St. John’s wort interacts with many medications in ways that can interfere with their intended effects, including antidepressants, birth control pills, antiretrovirals used to treat HIV infection, and others.
- Be aware of the potential for contamination. Some supplements have been found to contain hidden prescription drugs or other compounds, particularly in dietary supplements marketed for weight loss, sexual health including erectile dysfunction, and athletic performance or body-building.
- Talk to your health care providers. Tell your health care providers about any complementary health products or practices you use, including dietary supplements. This will help give them a full picture of what you are doing to manage your health and will help ensure coordinated and safe care.