Supplementing

The Smart and Safe Use of Vitamins and Supplements

Dietary Supplements We’re always hearing how a certain vitamin or herbal supplement will cure a chronic condition or drastically improve the quality of our lives. However, information about dietary supplements is often confusing or unclear. It’s hard to know which offer genuine health benefits and which are merely giving false promises, or worse, running the risk of actually damaging your health. By learning all you can about vitamins and supplements, you can make better choices about those that are right for you.

What are dietary supplements?

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) defines a dietary supplement as a product that:

  • supplements the food you eat;
  • contains one or more dietary ingredient (including vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids, and other substances);
  • comes in pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid form; and
  • is labeled as a dietary supplement.

There are different types of dietary, or nutritional, supplements. Vitamin and mineral supplements are types of dietary supplements containing micronutrients meant to help a healthy body function smoothly. Herbal (or botanical) supplements are dietary supplements that have a medicinal purpose. Herbal supplements generally support a specific area of the body’s health, such as the liver, bones or skin.

Health benefits of vitamin and mineral supplements

Vitamins and minerals are micronutrients that serve a specific purpose and benefit the body in a unique way. For example, vitamin A supports vision and bone growth, whereas vitamin E strengthens the immune system and helps repair DNA. Vitamin and mineral deficiency can impair the body’s ability to heal and protect itself.

Taking vitamins does not make up for an unhealthy diet, and vitamins are an insufficient substitute for nutrients from fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. However, a general multivitamin and mineral supplement can be a good safeguard against periodic vitamin shortfalls in your diet.

Herbal supplements

Herbal supplements are different from vitamin and mineral supplements in that they are considered to have medicinal value. Herbs, also known as botanicals, are one of humanity’s oldest health care tools, and the basis of many modern medicines. Primitive and ancient civilizations relied on herbs for healing, as do many contemporary cultures throughout the world. In fact, the World Health Organization has estimated that 80% of the world’s population continues to use traditional therapies, a major part of which are derived from plants.

If you are taking other medications, refrain from taking herbal supplements without first checking with your doctor. Herbal supplements and over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs can combine to cause adverse side effects. Just because an herbal supplement is extracted from a “natural” source does not render it any less potent than any other chemicals you may ingest.

Who can benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements?

In general, children and adults might benefit from taking one multivitamin per day. A multivitamin helps provide a consistent source of the necessary vitamins and micronutrients. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “a daily multivitamin, and maybe an extra vitamin D supplement, is a great way to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need to be healthy.”

However, the very first consideration is to eat a healthy diet. Even the best supplement is no substitute for good nutrition. In many Western countries, people tend to consume foods that are high in calories, but lack nutrients that are vital for good health.

Some groups of people, because of distinct nutritional needs, benefit most from taking a vitamin and mineral supplement:

  • Women of childbearing age (need extra calcium and iron)
  • Pregnant or lactating women
  • Children and teenagers with irregular eating habits
  • Seniors
  • Vegetarians or vegans (may be deficient in key nutrients)
  • Dieters or people avoiding certain food groups (may be deficient in key nutrients)
  • People with eating disorders or medical conditions (deficiency diseases, absorption problems, lactose intolerance, etc.)
  • People who often eat processed and fast food

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Ensuring smart supplementation

The word “supplement” means something added. In this case, you’re “adding” to a basic healthy diet and lifestyle, or to a prescription medication or therapy to treat a medical condition. An herbal supplement or vitamin regimen on its own will not necessarily cure or treat your condition or heath problem. It’s also important to remember that not all supplements are beneficial, especially when taken in toxic doses or combined with other medications.

The media loves exciting headlines, so the moment an herb or vitamin is tentatively shown to be beneficial in some way, it is touted as the next miracle cure. Advertising can be misleading as well, promising us “totally safe”, “natural”, and “quick and effective” solutions to many health problems. You can keep yourself from falling prey to false promises by researching any product you are considering taking. Make sure there is good scientific research that supports the claims of the supplement’s marketers.