Ask the experts
Many people use dietary supplements with the hopes of improving their health without knowing that there is typically little proof, if any, that a supplement will do what it claims to do. The truth is that supplements are not monitored for their safety and efficacy the way that prescription and over-the-counter medications are. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring the safety of drug products (prescription and over-the-counter). Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), manufacturers of dietary supplements are the ones responsible for ensuring the safety of their own products. This means that the companies making the supplements do not have to report to anyone but themselves. There are many reasons why this becomes a problem:
- There are no required tests to determine if the supplement will do what it claims.
- Many supplements combine ingredients that have never been tested together, so there is no way to know if they are safe to take together.
- Supplements do not need to be tested with other medications, so there is no way to know how they will interact with any medications that you take.
- If you have any medical conditions, there is no way to know how the supplement may affect you.
- The dosing in supplements may vary from batch to batch, and this is not monitored.
The FDA does get involved with monitoring the safety of the supplement once it is marketed. When a supplement is found to contain unsafe ingredients or a manufacturer is making false claims, the FDA can take action. For example, the FDA has taken action against weight-loss supplements that contained undeclared prescription ingredients by removing them from the market. Unfortunately, these actions take place after problems have occurred.
Until the supplement laws change, I recommend sticking with modifying your diet and physical activity as a means to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Research is clear that there are countless health benefits to following a diet that is high in vegetables, fruits, and fiber and low in fat, sugar, and alcohol. Small changes can have a big impact, so don't worry about changing everything that you eat all at once.
Medically reviewed by Robert Bargar, MD; Board Certification in Public Health & General Preventive Medicine
"Overview of herbal medicine and dietary supplements"