Photo courtesy of Michelle Loy. Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.Are you currently taking dietary supplements? Could you be making some mistakes with your supplements? I get asked a lot of questions regarding supplements, so today I thought I'd share my insight on some of the biggest mistakes I see people making with their supplement usage.
Are you relying on the advertisement or supplement label for information regarding the safety and effectiveness? Many people rely on the supplement labels, advertisements, or sales people for information about a supplement, but keep in mind that the information may be inaccurate, misleading, or biased. Advertisements also often rely on testimonials or anecdotal evidence; however, one person's experience does not necessarily make a supplement safe or effective. It's best to do your own research of scientific, peer-reviewed, evidence-based resources so that you can make an informed decision about the supplements you choose to use. Believe me, your time and effort will be worth it! You may want to check out these resources for starters: The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements, The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or ConsumerLab.com.
Are you taking the correct dosage? When talking with people about their supplements, I often find that many people aren't taking the dosage indicated on the container. Some take more, some take less. Most recently someone mentioned that she started taking a supplement upon the recommendation of her eye doctor. She stated that she just takes the supplement "whenever her vision gets blurry", but the directions indicate that users should take "three capsules three times a day". So keep in mind that if a supplement actually does what it claims, then taking it "whenever you feel like it" or "whenever you remember" may not benefit you as much as it would if you took the supplement as directed. On the other hand, more isn't necessarily better when it comes to supplements either. I know some people who pop extra vitamins to give them a boost of "energy" or to stave off a cold; however, there is a risk of toxicity associated with some supplements. For example, taking too much iron can lead to iron toxicity, which has harmful effects, especially in children. So be sure to follow the dosage directions carefully.
Are you timing it right? Just as some medications indicate a specific time frame during which they should be taken (eg, morning, between meals), some supplements require the same. For example, those who use zinc lozenges to recover from a cold quicker are usually advised to start taking the supplement at the first onset of symptoms and to continue for at least 48 hours after that. In addition, users are also directed to consume one tablet every two to three hours until symptoms subside. However, I know many people who do not follow the proper timing when taking zinc lozenges to treat the common cold. These instructions are a little tough to follow, yet based on the evidence, they appear to be most effective when consumption is timed right.
Could your supplement be negatively interacting with a food, nutrient, drug, or other supplement? While people may consider these things when taking medications, I often find that they do not give the same attention to supplements. Many nutrients compete for the same sites of absorption in the gastrointestinal tract. So consuming nutrients in supplement form can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food. For example, did you know that consuming calcium supplements with a type of iron in plant foods (non-heme iron) may reduce the bioavailability of the iron since they compete for absorption in the GI tract? Also, some dietary supplements may increase or decrease the absorption, metabolism, or action of certain medications. Did you know that many medications are derived from or modeled after herbal remedies? It's true! For example, the chemical composition of aspirin is similar to that of willow bark. For that reason, many herbal remedies can interfere with the metabolism or amplify the effects of medications. For instance, consuming ginkgo biloba with blood-thinning drugs, such as coumadin or heparin, may prolong bleeding time and increase the risk for hemorrhage. Or taking St. John's wort with antidepressant medications may intensify their effects. Because of these potentially harmful interactions, you may want to have the supplements your taking evaluated by a Registered Dietitian, physician, or other health care provider.
Is there a reason you shouldn't be taking a supplement? Some supplement labels will provide a list of contraindications or reasons that one should not take the supplement, and this list typically includes pregnant or lactating women and children. Other than that, there aren't always comprehensive lists of contraindications. However, we do need to be cautious about taking supplements given certain circumstances, conditions, or illnesses. For instance, smokers are advised against long-term supplementation of beta carotene, a form of vitamin A, due to a possible increased risk for development of lung cancer. Competitive athletes may need to avoid certain supplements because they contain a banned substance. For example, guarana is banned by the NCAA; however, this caffeine-loaded substance is found in many supplements designed to "improve athletic performance". Taking such a supplement could result in suspension or disqualification from the sport. Given the potential risks, it is wise to check with your physician, dietitian, or the athletic staff, in the case of athletes, to make sure that all substances contained in a supplement are considered safe, effective, and approved for use.
Are there other ingredients in the supplement that could be harmful to you? I find that people often select a supplement based on the label claims or the major ingredients highlighted on the front of the label or on the supplement facts panel. However, few people read through the entire ingredient list to see all that the supplement contains. Many supplements include other substances, such as binders and dyes, to which some people may be sensitive or allergic. For example, some supplements contain soybean oil or soy lecithin, which may be harmful for someone with a soy allergy. Someone with a wheat allergy may need to avoid products made with modified food starch as this may come from wheat. If you do have food allergies or sensitivities, then it would be beneficial to thoroughly review the supplement ingredient list yourself for any potentially harmful substances or have your dietitian or health care provider do so with you.
Are you taking multiple supplements with the same ingredients? When evaluating supplements, I often discover that a person is taking multiple supplements that contain the same nutrients. For instance, they may be taking a multivitamin-mineral along with a B-complex supplement. Each supplement contains some amount of all of the B vitamins, typically at least 100% of the Daily Value, so they're basically taking more than necessary. In fact, since B vitamins are water-soluble and not stored to any great extent in the body, so the excess is basically excreted from the body in the urine. Pretty pricey urine, if you ask me! So, examine your supplements carefully to make sure that you're not taking more than what's necessary.
Are you taking a supplement to make up for what you lack in your diet? Some people readily admit that they take supplements to make up for what their diet lacks. Usually what's lacking are vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, which are also packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. I understand that it may be challenging to eat a healthful, well-balanced diet that includes a variety of foods from the various food groups everyday and that some people opt to take supplements as a safety net. However, some people simply do not want to or do not like to include foods like vegetables and fruits into their diet, so they think that they're getting the next best thing with supplements. It is important to keep in mind that they are called supplements for a reason. They are meant to supplement the diet rather than serve as a substitute for food consumption. Okay, so maybe it's better than nothing, but we need to consider what a person misses out on when s/he consumes supplements instead of food as a source of nutrients. How is it possible to truly package the full nutritional value of a whole vegetable or fruit into one or even a few pills? Also, research suggests that it is the combination of nutrients and phytochemicals of whole foods that work together synergistically to provide optimal nutrition to the body, and those processes would be lacking if we singled out nutrients or phytochemicals. I also find that some people take supplements and still consume an unbalanced diet that provides less than optimal nutrition. So far, it doesn't appear that taking a slew of supplements makes up for a diet loaded with less nutritious, processed foods. Finally, when consuming supplements instead of whole foods, we are missing out on the FOOD! While popping a pill or two might provide some of the essential nutrients one needs for basic physiological functioning, it will not necessarily help with satiety. A person will still need to eat food to satisfy hunger. Eat 5 cups of vegetables and fruits daily and most will find themselves very satiated and well-nourished!
If you're really ready to dig into some solid information regarding supplements, you may want to check out the titles below. Some of these can even be checked out at your local library!
- PDR for Nutritional Supplements 2nd Edition (PDR for Nutritional Supplements)
- PDR for Herbal Medicines, 4th Edition
- A-Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition: Improve Your Health and Avoid Side Effects When Using Common Medications and Natural Supplements Together
- Understanding Dietary Supplements (Understanding Health and Sickness Series)