When you pick up a prescription medication, it’s likely a drug that’s been clinically tested, is proven safe, and is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). When you purchase a dietary supplement, it’s a product that the FDA does not evaluate or review for safety and effectiveness. That’s because federal law treats supplements more like foods than prescription or over-the-counter drugs. In other words, the FDA is responsible for taking action against a dietary supplement product only after harm occurs. (Some manufacturers submit their products for third-party testing through independent laboratories such as the U.S. Pharmacopeia, or USP.)
What are Dietary Supplements?
Dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals, amino acids, extracts, concentrates and metabolites. They are offered as tablets, capsules, liquids, and powders. Sellers may claim their products provide certain nutritional benefits, help you lose weight, boost energy, build muscle mass, relieve pain, slow or “stop” the aging process, or even prevent, treat or cure certain diseases.
Are they Good for Me?
Although supplement marketers often promote their products a vital to good health, supplements shouldn’t replace a healthy, balanced diet. You may not need supplements if you maintain a good and varied diet, and too much of some nutrients (such as through vitamins) can cause problems. On the other hand, there are people who will benefit from some types of supplements — such as pregnant women who take folic acid.
But, as largely unregulated products, supplements may contain ingredients not listed on the product label; contain ingredients at higher or lower amounts than listed (or not even contain a listed ingredient); could be manufactured inconsistently; sellers may make false, misleading or unsupported “miracle cure” health claims; and some products may lead to serious health effects or even death. Unlike with drugs, supplement manufacturers are not allowed to promote their products to treat, diagnose, prevent, or cure diseases.
Mixing prescription medication with dietary supplements or mixing supplements alone could cause unintended side effects. Combining the two could strengthen, weaken, or even change how a medication or supplement affects you.
But Supplements are Natural Products, Right?
While a supplement manufacturer may market a product as “natural” and the product may, indeed, contain natural ingredients, even some natural ingredients can adversely impact your body and could, in certain situations, be unsafe.
Where Do I Turn to for Reliable Information?
Check with your health care provider before taking a supplement. Make sure your provider understands what you are taking, including the amount, and any other prescription medications, over-the-counter drugs, or supplements. Let your provider know if you are pregnant or nursing, whether you have any diseases or chronic conditions (such as cancer, heart or breathing problems, diabetes, high blood pressure), and whether you’re about to have surgery. Ask about the potential benefits and risks of taking the supplement, just as you would ask about taking a prescription drug. If you are considering a supplement for a child, check with the child’s health care provider first.
If you search the Internet for information about a supplement, be aware of the source. For example, weigh the value of information you’ll find on an established government, academic or reputable health-related website, versus information or testimonials posted on a site designed to market products or promote an industry.
What if There’s a Problem?
If you think that a supplement has caused an adverse side effect, reaction or illness, report it to your health care provider and to the FDA. You can call 1-800-FDA-1088 to request a report form or file an online complaint at www.fda.gov. If you think that an advertisement about a supplement includes false health claims, contact the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-382-4357 or file an online complaint at www.ftc.gov/complaint.