Dietary Supplements — Choosing and Using Them Wisely
Choosing the right supplement
First, dietary supplements don’t need to be proven effective for anything before they’re marketed. The manufacturer needs to ensure purity and safety of the product, but not efficacy. If the manufacturer makes a health claim on the label (such as “this product increases brain function”) it must be followed by a disclaimer. So in contrast to non-prescription medicines, which only have proven uses listed on the label, dietary supplements can make claims on the label without having clinical proof that they're true.
The supplement label on the right shows the health claim at the top of the label and the disclaimer required by the FDA labeling guidelines at the bottom. In contrast to non-prescription medicines, manufacturers of dietary supplements are not required to conduct research showing efficacy. Many products are marketed with unsubstantiated health claims, and so the label is required to state that efficacy is unproven.
Finding the right product for the health concern you want to treat or prevent can get complicated, too. It's easy to find a non-prescription medicine for a cough, for example. You just walk down the pharmacy aisle labeled "cough and cold" and you have an array of products. Looking through the supplement aisle is a whole different project. Here, items are shelved alphabetically rather than by indication. And many supplements are marketed for a variety of indications, making it that much harder to find the supplement that will help you stay healthy.
Choosing the right dose
Finding objective, reliable information about dietary supplements
Thought it may be hard to find reliable information about the best product to use and the effective dose, with a little homework before the shopping trip, sound decisions can be made! There are several websites that can be counted on to provide objective information.
One of my favorites is RxList, which is free of charge and gives up-to-date reviews of supplements with research-supported information on efficacy, side effects, drug interactions, and dosage. The Office of Dietary Supplements provides similarly objective information at no charge. Other reliable sites include WebMD and MedScape, though those sites may require subscription fees. Be cautious when looking at other websites, as it's often hard to tell which ones are funded by manufacturers, marketers, or sellers of the products. Always confirm questionable information by reviewing the information in one of the objective databases listed above.
Dietary supplements are growing rapidly in popularity. A survey from 2005 indicated that about 56% of adults were using these products, while a survey in 2016 found supplement use in nearly 75% of US adults. Be sure to choose products and doses that will benefit your health!