Should I take dietary supplements? Common myths

By: Katherine Grote, CRNP

More than three quarters of Americans take dietary supplements, such as vitamins and minerals. If you’re one of them, your reasons may include improving your nutrition, preventing disease and living a healthier life.

Taking dietary supplements for the right reasons can help supply your body with important nutrients. However, there is a lot of misinformation about supplements, and not all of them perform as advertised. See these common myths about supplements and how to get real benefits from them.

Myth 1: Most people need supplements. In fact, most adults can meet their nutritional needs with a well-balanced, healthy diet.  In cases of nutritional deficiency that cannot be solved through food alone, taking the vitamins and minerals you need can help fill the gaps. If your doctor recommends a supplement, well and good. Otherwise, you’ll do better to eat healthy.

Myth 2: Supplements are natural, so they are safe. Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe or effective. Supplements that have been linked to significant health risks include St. John’s Wort, kava, comfrey, chaparral and pennyroyal.

Myth 3: Supplements are approved by the government. Supplements do not need to be proven safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, the FDA gets involved only after a supplement is on the market, and can ban supplements that have negative effects. However, that happens after people are already using the supplements.

Myth 4: You can’t take too many vitamins. Some people believe large doses of certain supplements can prevent or cure certain health issues, such as vitamin C for colds. In most cases, this overdosing has no effect, and you just waste your money. However, some supplements can be toxic in large doses. For example, too much vitamin C can cause upset stomach or diarrhea, and excess vitamin B-6 can cause neuropathy, a form of nerve damage.

Myth 5: Supplements won’t interfere with medicine. Some supplements, especially the herbal varieties, can interfere with medicines, making them less effective or causing unwanted side effects. For example, if you are on the blood thinner warfarin, vitamin K, which promotes blood clotting, can interfere with the warfarin. Also, if you take antibiotics at the same time as probiotics, the antibiotics will kill the probiotics, and you end up with no benefit.

Myth 6: Supplement labels are accurate. Since dietary supplements are largely unregulated, it may be hard to know what’s in them. For example, a supplement can claim to contain 100% of a vitamin but really contain as little as 10%. Some supplements are tested by independent third parties, such as NSF International, to verify their contents. Look for that information on the label. If you don’t see it, you can’t be sure what you’re buying.

Myth 7: Supplements do what they claim. Some supplements make unproven health claims, such as preventing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, causing quick weight loss and improving your immune system. Dietary supplements can’t legally claim to treat or prevent a disease, but some do it anyway. A good rule of thumb: if a supplement’s claim sounds too good to be true, it is.

The takeaway: if your doctor recommends a dietary supplement to treat a nutritional deficiency, go ahead and take it. Otherwise, it probably won’t benefit your health or bank account.

Katherine Grote, Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner, holds her Master of Science in Nursing degree from Indiana State University, and is board certified by the AANP in Family Practice. She sees patients in MPCP’s Bowie office.