Use Dietary Supplements Wisely

Use Dietary Supplements Wisely

Information Resources

By Evelyn Cunico, MA, MS/LIS
Posted March 08, 2017


Many Americans take dietary supplements in an effort to stay healthy. Although high-quality clinical trials (studies in people) have confirmed the benefits of some dietary supplements, key questions remain about the safety and usefulness of others.

Some supplements can play an important role in health. For example, Calcium and Vitamin D are important for keeping bones strong. Pregnant women can take the Vitamin Folic Acid to prevent certain birth defects in their babies.

Some other dietary supplements have been shown to cause serious harm. For example, the herbs Comfrey and Kava can cause severe damage to the liver.

Still other dietary supplements have not gone through high-quality clinical trials, so there is not enough scientific evidence to support their use.

One reason for limited clinical trials is that large carefully controlled medical studies are costly. Clinical trials for conventional drugs are often funded by large companies that develop and sell prescription drugs. Fewer resources are available to support scientific research on many dietary supplements.

Federal Regulation of Dietary Supplements

The Federal Government regulates dietary supplements through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the regulations for dietary supplements are not the same as those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

A manufacturer of a dietary supplement does not have to provide the FDA with data that demonstrate the safety of the product before it is marketed. In contrast, manufacturers of drugs have to provide the FDA with evidence that their products are both safe and effective before the drugs can be sold.

Unlike drugs, supplements are not intended to cure, diagnosis, prevent, or treat diseases. This means that supplements should not make claims, such as, reduces pain, or treats heart disease. Claims like these can be made legitimately only for drugs, not dietary supplements.

How to Take a Dietary Supplement as Safely as Possible

A reliable, free, and up-to-date consumer source for information about health issues is the website of MedlinePlus, produced by the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library.

MedlinePlus publishes health topic pages that you can visit to learn about conditions, diseases, and wellness issues.

For example, the MedlinePlus topic page for Dietary Supplements explains how to take a supplement as safely as possible.

  • Tell your health care provider about any dietary supplements you use.
  • If you are going to have surgery, it is particularly important that you talk with your medical doctor about the dietary supplements that you take.
  • Do not take a bigger dose than the label recommends.
  • Read trustworthy information about the supplement.

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) was established to conduct research on the usefulness and safety of complementary and integrative interventions, including dietary supplements, and to make the findings available to the public.

The NCCIH has published a free online fact sheet, called Using Dietary Supplements Wisely. The fact sheet provides a general overview of dietary supplements, discusses safety considerations, and suggests sources for additional information.

If you are considering taking a dietary supplement, talk first with your conventional medical doctor. He or she can access information to help you to understand possible risks and benefits before you buy and use a dietary supplement.

Disclaimer: The information presented in this blog should not replace the medical advice of your conventional medical doctor. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any disease, illness, or other health condition without first consulting with your conventional medical doctor.

Selected Information Resources

National Health Interview Survey 2012. Use of Complementary Health Approaches in the U.S.
Summary Note: The 2012 National Health Interview Survey provides the most comprehensive information on the use of complementary health approaches in the United States.
(Accessed 06 March 2017)

National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Five Myths about Popular Natural Products Marketed for Disease Prevention and Wellness
Summary Note: Fact sheet with brief statements about popular beliefs that are myths, related to specific Natural Products.
(Accessed 04 March 2017)

National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Herbs at a Glance.
Summary Note: Series of fact sheets providing evidence-based information on 50 herbs and botanicals. Fact sheets include common names, potential side effects, what the science says, and resources for more information
(Accessed 04 March 2017)

National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Understanding Drug-Supplement Interactions
Summary Note: Series of 13 slides asks you true or false questions, followed by correct answers, about your understanding of interactions between dietary supplements and prescription or over-the-counter drugs.
(Accessed 04 March 2017)

National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Using Dietary Supplements Wisely.
Summary Note: Fact sheet written in plain language to help you to decide whether a dietary supplement is safe or useful. Nine subheadings include Key Points, Safety Considerations, and References. Emphasis is on the need to talk with your doctor before you buy a dietary supplement.
(Accessed 05 March 2017)

National Institutes of Health. National Institute on Aging. Health and Aging. AgePage. Beware of Health Scams.
Summary Note: Explains why people fall for false sales pitches. Advises how to protect yourself from health scams. Lists helpful resources with addresses and phone numbers. Topic focus is on health and aging, but relevant for adults of any age.
(Accessed 04 March 2017)

National Institutes of Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Dietary Supplements.
Summary Note: Good place to begin learning about the benefits and risks of dietary supplements, with subheadings on Definitions, What You Need to Know, and Specifics on various types of dietary supplements. Includes separate sections on Children, Teenagers, Seniors, and Women.
(Accessed 08 March 2017)

National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements.  Botanical Dietary Supplements.
Summary Note: Explains that the word, natural, on a product label does not necessarily mean, safe. And, the word, standardized, on a label does not necessarily indicate product quality. Encourages you to talk with your healthcare providers (medical doctor, registered dietician, pharmacist, etc.) about your interest in, questions about, or use of dietary supplements and what may be best for your overall health.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know.
Summary Note: Explains benefits and risks of dietary supplements. Suggests how to be a Smart Supplement Shopper. Steps on how to Report Problems to the FDA.
(Accessed 08 March 2017)